Over the past week a few artists have written asking what I meant by “the guru syndrome.” It’s my own term to describe people (like me) who get a kick out of trying to help others. In a broader sense, folks with the guru syndrome range from spiritual pundits, quasi-religious figures, to charismatic whiz-bangs like Tony Robbins. Some have degrees in psychology and others are self-anointed.
The art game is loaded with them. They range from coaches, mentors, teachers, workshoppers and professional art-workers who just want to share their experience for whatever it’s worth. Books, TV, seminars and the Internet are some of the traditional guru vehicles. Some gurus, I’m sorry to say, are pretty much charlatans, or at least amateurs themselves, who provide glib, lightweight solutions to their insecure and vulnerable disciples.
That being said, the great principle of growth and improvement is the helping reach of others. This sort of brotherly love and sharing is hard-wired in the human soul, and some of us have it in spades. To become one of these gurus, one needs only to have the perceived imprimatur of authority. The main job of nascent artists is to determine who the truly authoritative ones are. In the jungle of human engagement, glitz and appearance often trump content. Further, and unfortunately, many seekers just feel secure in environments of mediocrity.
Glitz often includes the speedy solutions of attitudinal devices. Woo-woo is okay, but in our game, practical, hard-won and personally interpreted processes are key. Beware of the art-guru who goes not there.
I was rereading the guruship of Charles Reid’s Painting What You (Want to) See. I wondered about the motivation of this remarkable painter. He takes you into the very recesses of his painting mind. Talking about lightening darks with colours other than white, allowing areas to accept the temperature of adjacent areas, carrying compositions with clear local colours and interactive patterns — this is inspiration that one might not get from someone strutting across a stage or sitting cross-legged by a Nepalese cave. But it is an example of the guru syndrome of the highest order — sharing without expectation and giving the details of a personal process and how to interact with your own work at hand. ‘Scuse me, but some painters ought to have tattoos made of Charles’s stuff.
PS: “Wonderful things can happen if you put your brush down and let your painting be your teacher.” (Charles Reid)
Esoterica: How to handle gurus? Be promiscuous. Don’t sign up for anything long term. Learn and move on. In the old days recognized masters fingered talented folks and worked with them, often without charge. Some students became apprentices and were kicked out when they didn’t perform. This tradition has all but died out. Nowadays, gurus are in the guru business for profit. Many of the best ones are right under your nose in books. With books you can edit your gurus, allow them to pontificate on your own schedule, and dump them when you outgrow them.
Not a guru
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I teach art in a public high school. I am no guru. I am a journey-man. I teach art tricks. Perspective. Sketching. A light touch. Proportions. The basic shapes and forms. In this effort, I see children grow. I see remarkable things. Remarkable things happen every day. My work is simple. I make art accessible to all comers. They prove themselves in my class. I believe that art is a human right. Art is a human thing. Art is something that human beings have done before agriculture. It is basic.
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Teachers have guru syndrome?
by Anne Kullaf
I enjoy your letters very much! I was a little bit confused by your article on guru syndrome, so I thought I would share my reaction to it since I began teaching 2 years ago.
Here is the part of your article that confuses me — are you saying that anyone who chooses to teach does so because they have guru syndrome? I don’t think you are, but I wanted to make sure I read things correctly. I have to teach — I don’t earn enough from painting sales to support myself and my family, I don’t think there are many artists these days that do. But I don’t mind because I love teaching and I try to give as much as I can to my students in terms of practical advice and knowledge, plus a good dose of encouragement. I start each new class series by telling my new students that I am not a “how to” instructor–I can’t teach you how to paint, I can only give you tools and concepts for you to use and interpret in your own work. So tell me, do you think I have guru syndrome? I hope not, because to me guru syndrome sounds like it is a self-serving phenomenon reserved for snake oil salesmen!
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No easy answer
by Linda Anderson Stewart, AB, Canada
Thanks for this letter Robert… it is soooo overdue that folks begin to realize there is no easy answer or “fix” for the tough patches in life… including learning to paint well. It is just plain hard work and self-discipline.
There are so many wannabe authorities around who haven’t put in the time it takes to earn their stripes, so one needs to be careful about choosing a credible mentor who will be generous and self-aware enough to know if they are truly good teacher material (ergo the saying, those who can’t do, teach). It also takes a thoughtful creative person to glean the messages in what “gurus” have to offer… smoke and mirrors can so often be mistaken for “mysterious truths.”
All artists are gurus
by Brigitte Nowak, Toronto, ON, Canada
I’m not sure why you’ve separated the role of the guru, or shaman, from that of the artist: in my interpretation of their vocation, they are linked, and that it is natural for gurus to be artists and vice versa. True artists (of whatever stripe) interpret their life, experience, joy, pain and sorrow through the medium of their art in order to reach out to others and share the wisdom that they have discovered: which is what the most useful of gurus do as well.
Though much art is “glib and lightweight,” the best of it illuminates the world, examines our role in it, and attempts to bring meaning and coherence to our experience of it. Whether it is sharing a useful technique, interpreting the majesty of nature, experiencing an emotion through an actor’s eyes, being moved by a haunting melody, the role of artists, shamans and gurus is to share their gifts and perceptions.
Teaching for discovery
by Linda Walker, Bemidji, MN, USA
My workshops are taught not only to give information and inspiration to the artists taking them but for me to find out what I know and augment that with new information. I have never taught a workshop during which I didn’t find that I knew more than I thought, someone always comes up with a question that I hadn’t prepared for and I find the answer is there within me, and there is also always something that comes up that makes me go into research mode. I actually learn as much from those students that are beginners or enjoy remaining amateur as from those that are turning out professional quality work, perhaps because they are not as fearful of asking a ‘stupid question.’ The classes are filled with fun and camaraderie and although I could make more money with larger classes I keep a limit on the number of students so I can give more personal attention to each. I become more versed and so a better teacher and painter with each class or artist I teach. And so I guess I am often guilty of ‘sharing with expectation,’ that being my own education and evolution.
Finding the good teachers
by Jeffrey Hessing, Nice, France
There is no scarcity of painting teachers. Certainly some better than others. It is essential to master the basics of techniques so that the painting will be solid and last for hundreds of years without cracking, yellowing, discoloring. When one has learned technique and learned to draw then paint skillfully, let’s say that takes ten to twenty years on the average, then what? How do you go further? What do you want to say or express with these skills. What makes a work of art great?
Do many teachers or “gurus” ever get to the heart of the matter? Does anyone dare to talk about the spiritual side of art? Is that too “wow-woo” for our art academies and Universities? Aren’t we missing the most important thing? The ‘SOUL’ of painting. There are good teachers and bad, good gurus and bad. Same for doctors, lawyers, plumbers, car mechanics. In fact, only ten percent of people practicing any profession are really good. It is up to us to find them.
Cherish the Art Spirit
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
When a new art student of mine claims, “I could not have done this painting without your help!” I simply tell them to read and “cherish” Robert Henri’s book, The Art Spirit. I’m quite certain that after reading this marvel of profound insight and information, his “words” will truly change the way they experience art forever! My dear friend gave this special book to me while I was undergoing difficult breast cancer treatments nine years ago and was too ill at the time to paint. I underlined hundreds of sentences and have found it to be of greater help and enlightenment than any other book or “art guru” that entered in and out of my art education and one of the best “cure-alls” I’ve ever received. I continue to read many books by the best, but have referred most to my “bible” by Henri.
I recommend that this book be read in short intervals and repeated again at least once so as not to miss the “spirit written between the lines.”
The Internet as teacher
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
The Internet, for me, is probably the greatest vehicle that I’ve found to learn from. By responding to art-related forums, newsletters and just talking to other artists around the world has helped me to understand the business that we are in better. Not just the business of making money from our art, but the business of being an artist. I’ve noticed a few points over the past couple years that I’ve learned by staying involved. One, my views have changed as I learn more, giving me a broader base on different topics, growth. Two, as an artist, we seem to try everything that comes down the pike, to see if it works for us. And three, by sharing these experiences with each other, helps us to better understand where we came from, are now, and where we are headed. Otherwise we just stay in our own little world of stagnant thoughts. We are all in this boat together.
A couple rules I try to live by are: Learn something new every day, and if someone takes the time to teach you something, take the time to learn it. Whether you use what you’ve learned or not is up to the individual, but you will have that knowledge either way. I guess I’m an amateur guru in training.
Guru in the pecking order
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
Like in every industry there is a pecking order in gurus and a farm system like baseball and hockey. You work your way up the ladder if that is your goal. I am polishing up my guru skills, teaching small local workshops. It is fun and challenging and there seems to be many venues if one is willing to do the work. I am willing and able. For my reasonable daily fee, I am a great bargain for a beginning pastel artist. They get the benefit of my thirty years of tinkering and studying other gurus and masters. They get much individualized attention that they would likely not get from a high level expensive guru. I do not hoard my knowledge and I give it all I have. My ego is in check. I laugh at myself at every opportunity. I tell my students they are getting opinions by the trainload and are free to analyze, apply or discard them. In this arena, it is all about performance and that is the way it should be. I don’t possess a “big name’ so am judged on my ability and effort and rewarded with future workshops if my effort is deemed more than satisfactory. Charles Reid is certainly a wonderful guru and I borrow from what I have learned from him as well as what I have gleened from other of the great gurus. In an art world of egomaniacs, charlatans, liars and con artists, I can hold my head and my ethics high. I provide a good service for a good price!
No dependency please
by Marion Barnett, UK
This gave me a bit of a poke in the ribs. Along with a colleague, I’ve just published a book for textile artists on using Lutradur. And another two are in development, one on another non woven fabric, another on removing the practical and emotional blocks we put up between ourselves and our creativity. That one draws on my experience as a Self Development specialist and artist. And I’ve run several online groups for many years, to encourage growth and change in textile artists. Am I a guru? Err… not in my own head. In my own head, I’m a constantly changing and developing artist, sharing some of what I know for free, and some of it for (a very modest) gain. I may be a guru in your head, or my students’ heads, but I’m not in my own, and if I ever I get to that point, I hope to goodness someone will take me gently aside and wake me up! When I work with people, I want to encourage them to believe that they have all the answers inside them already, and can learn to draw them out for themselves. Gurus, methinks, create a culture of dependency that is positively harmful to everyone, and stifles creativity.
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by Ruth Phillips, Bedoin, France
I have always felt privileged to be in a profession — music — where the concept of a guru still exists. At least it used to. One thing I have loved about my training, and it is similar to the apprentice of old, is that we ‘lose’ our ‘selves’ in our teacher; we give our ‘selves’ entirely into their care and wisdom and thus, by losing the self we find something deeper that connects us to the spirit of humanity. We rise, in love, with our teacher. We become liberated, through the discipline of practice, from the shackles of the ego, and that way we have a chance to touch the music at its deepest place. It is, I believe, a spiritual training and in this way, like all of them (including the church) it can, when it is not based upon love, be a hotbed for abuse.
Music is not about expressing our own personality. Or it wasn’t. Nowadays, with the ego, sex and beauty pageant that is the current music scene, I think we may be losing the plot. Sadly.
by David Schwindt, Tucson, AZ, USA
At the same time Charles Reid was teaching us in watercolor workshops, another fine painter influenced me, turning my head toward the sciences. Wilson Hurley painted the western landscape with an unmatched passion and shared his knowledge with any one who asked for it. The catalogue from his first major show at The National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City in 1977 referenced articles from Scientific American magazine and I went to the library to research them. No one I had met (or read about) studied the whys of art more thoroughly than Wilson Hurley or shared it so willingly, never asking anything in return. During my first critique with him in 1975, he said that he felt it was his duty to pass on the knowledge that was given to him so freely by other artists from his earliest days in New Mexico to the present. When he was fourteen (in 1938) he studied with John Young-Hunter and Theodore Van Soelen, and painted in the field with Jozeph Bakos, well known Sante Fe artists from the early decades of the twentieth century. Wilson opened his doors not only to me but to every serious artist that requested an audience. He shared his knowledge with local civic groups as well, as I discovered when he presented an easel-sized value scale during his workshop at the Scottsdale Artist’s School in 1987.
Much has been written about him and by him in local publications and magazines and three major catalogues with soft covers, but a major hardcover book has yet to be published. One can read about his painting techniques in two publications: American Artist, May 1986, Wilson Hurley’s Color Theory and Practice by Calvin J. Goodman, and Masters of Western Art by Mary Carroll Nelson, Watson-Guptill Publications 1982.
Images of his work can be seen in his catalogues: Wilson Hurley: An Exhibition of Oil Paintings, 1977, Lowell Press; and Wilson Hurley, A Retrospective Exhibition, 1985, The Albuquerque Museum and Buffalo Bill Historical Center; Wilson Hurley’s Campaign: Painting the Murals for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, 2005, The University of Oklahoma. This catalogue also exhibits one of the best examples of his working methods.
Wilson Hurley passed away August 29, 2008
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Enjoy the past comments below for The guru syndrome…
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 Sara Genn of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “You can’t teach writing, you can only expose students to great work and hope that it inspires them.”
And also Suzanne Geller who wrote, “You are so right about Charles Reid. I have taken many workshops with Charles (whenever I could afford them). Do you know what this dear man did? I recently lost ALL my brushes — mostly sable and Kolinskys, collected carefully over many years. He heard about it through mutual friends and sent me six of his wonderful Kolinskys — used it is true — with even some teeth marks on the handles. Perhaps some magic will rub off. He is very special, as a painter and a human being.”