At the easel yesterday I was listening to a stockbroker on the telephone headset at the same time as my assistant Carol Ann was holding some cheques for me to sign. Just then one of the city fathers came in the door. “When do you find time to paint?” he asked. I told him that sometimes it seems like I do my work in my coffee breaks. Then, inwardly, I had a little silent epiphany: “If you’re having interruptions, you need them.”
The idea of nice clear times of solitude when you can get deeply and privately into the joy of work for hours or days on end — maybe doesn’t exist. Much of the time this studio is as busy as an advertising agency on deadline. Then I was realizing that many respectable artists run complex businesses, farms, even empires from their easels. Women (and men) run homes and families from the position. Is it a possibility, I wondered, that the proper balance of interruption and productivity is what is needed in order to keep the muse flowing and the hormones balanced? Maybe it’s a foot in the real world that keeps us real. Life’s total purpose is surely as important as art-making. I was remembering James Russell Lowell‘s remark: “Solitude is as needful to the imagination as society is wholesome for the character.”
When I was first starting out as a painter I wondered if anything was ever going to happen. It seemed like I was blowing my clarinet into a big void. Gradually, mostly by working hard I think, I’ve proved my neurotic fear to be false. Now I’m addicted to the complexity I’ve set up. I can’t claim to be victimized by it.
The city father was on charity duty. When it’s a good cause, I’m just a guy who can’t say “no.” Watching my yellow ochre drying up, I told him that I’d work him in. Then Edwin (5) and Wilf (9), who happen to be staying with us, came in and asked politely if I might have a “very large piece of paper or cloth to make a flag of the world.” I told them I’d be right with them.
PS: “Art has to do with the arrest of attention in the midst of distraction.” (Saul Bellow) “Purpose in the human being is a much more complex phenomenon than what used to be called willpower.” (Rollo May)
Esoterica: Interruptions can be somewhat controlled by putting “Artist at work — do not disturb,” on the door or “Go away,” on the mat. Another system is to rudely keep on working while people are trying to organize you. Funnily, “I’m in the middle of a wash,” seems to get respect, even if you’re not. “Excuse me, I’ve gotta go, my easel’s on fire,” does the trick for the telephone. One rule I have for visitors is to never offer them a drink of any kind, hard or soft. And put books on your chairs.
Inspiration “out of the blue”
by Les Blond
You got me thinking of all the times when deeply immersed in concentrated work, deadline meeting, a sudden flash of creative inspiration hits. This seemingly “out of the blue” idea or spark is something that needs to be considered later when time permits. It has nothing to do with the task at hand. Its origin is a mystery. To me it just proves that parts of our brain are active “in the background” and we can never actually focus all our capacity on the thing in front of us. Our attention is partial at best. Problem solving or awareness of our environment or creative awareness is always there. Maybe it is something that needs to happen to interrupt the more mundane concentrated taskstasks that produce tension or use too much energy.
Ask a busy person
by B. J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
The interrupted life fits most artists and many other self employed people as well as Mothers and Fathers. We would all like that extended time to work in isolation, but that is not how we’ve built our world. (Unless we go on a retreat, alone.) I stopped painting when my children were small and interruptions were frequent. I went to fiber art as I could stop and leave things as long as needles and pins were hidden and come back to it in short spurts. As they grew older I started combining the two as well as using the artwork in the community. That was an even busier time, but I found the busier you are the more you can accomplish. Even if the art comes in the middle of the night (and some commissions have caused me to work around the clock). If you want something done quickly, ask a busy person.
Have only one chair
by Sandy Triolo, Silver Spring, MD, USA
A few years ago I wrote to you looking for advice on setting up my new studio. The number one rule seemed to be “have only one chair” as a way to avoid having people stay too long. It has worked, usually during a party a few people will hang out in the studio for a little while, but other than that — it’s my domain for me alone.
Hang up your chairs
by Catherine Jo Morgan, Clarkesville, GA, USA
I was amused to read in Susan Vreeland‘s novel about Emily Carr, The Forest Lover, and how Emily solved the problem of unwanted visitors. She had a very small studio space, so she kept her chairs hoisted up to the ceiling. Only when she really wanted a visitor to stay, did she lower a chair to the floor. I loved this book so much that I read it twice within a month. Any artist who sometimes gets discouraged would find pleasure and encouragement in Emily Carr’s story. She’s a heroine.
Try sitting on these chairs
by Beverley McInnes, Chester, NS, Canada
I recently visited a studio of a friend and delighted in her prominently positioned, throughout the room, old rattan chairs. The holes in the seats filled with long stemmed dandy-lions and/or purple blooming chives, one by one carefully hung, placed and arranged. It was pure whimsy! It gave a clear yet warm and wonderful message. One could never sit on these works of art and mull and ponder nor intrude while engaging in esoterica.
Loud music as interruption deterrent
by Sara Genn, New York City, NY, USA
I picked up a good trick from Candace Meyer last year. I called her to ask about some photos she had taken and a possible publishing opportunity. When she answered the phone, her music was blaring, I mean, CRANKED. It was “obvious” she was in the middle of a shoot. I truly felt as though I was interrupting her, quickly ended the call, sat back and wondered why all these years I had been agreeably turning down the stereo every time the phone rang.
Headphones shut out distractors
by Jeanine Fondacaro
Being a muralist and working in public places and in private homes, where clients parade people in and out to observe you while you are trying to create their “masterpiece,” I’ve found that headphones work well to extinguish distracting questions. Even if I don’t have anything playing at the moment, people tend not to disturb me as much. I enjoy the music or books on tape and just strap the Walkman in a small fanny pack. You can easily ignore the chatter and stay “tuned” out. Being a lover of conversation, I can easily get lost and off task by being too conversational. Headphones also work well when plein air painting where bystanders tend to gather and tell stories of their great aunt Susie who used to paint.
Mind at work during health interruptions
by Tas, Langley, BC, Canada
I have been dealing with Crohn’s Disease for over thirty years and at the same time trying to become a good artist. Being creative at the best of times is challenging but to be interrupted by what life brings to you makes you deal with what’s in front of you and your artistic challenges are put to the side, for the time being. I have dealt with many of my interruptions by using my imagination. When I can’t create paintings because of life’s problems I try to make paintings in my mind. Looking out at the world and visualizing what this or that scene would look like as a painting. What colours I would use and how I would compose it. In this way I feel I have cheated the interruptions and made use of the time that has been taken away from me. Maybe creating art in your mind is not as rewarding as in real life but it is better that not creating at all.
Had nowhere to go
by Saera Lin Hawkins
Getting through a few years of angst and trouble, your letters and the letters from other artists brought me into the sun. I would love to peek over your shoulder, taking notes, watching intently, like a little mouse, just to learn. I learned most of my art in between raising a family, working full time, making dinner for a husband who would come into the kitchen but yet be a good guy. One day someone said of my mermaids that I did for therapy, never meant to even be seen by a soul, “put them online for mermaid lovers to view.” Yes there are those who love mermaids. I did the images out of grief and stress — depicting my feelings when life tied me up in knots, or made me feel like a bird that could not fly, and even when I felt so pretty and so wonderful, but had nowhere to go.
(RG note) Saera Lin Hawkins’ site somehow made me cry and it wasn’t just the Pachelbel Canon.
Interruptions include RGTWL
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
Society may be “wholesome for the character,” but for me the challenge is always to carve out nice big blocks of uninterrupted time alone in the studio. My studio/gallery is downtown, and I have a sign on the window: “Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 4-7pm.” People know they can always find someone here during that time, so I don’t feel so bad ignoring the phone and telling uninvited visitors ‘sorry we’re closed!” when I’m in the middle of painting. It’s always something, isn’t it? Appointments, out-of-town guests, life maintenance emergencies, letters from Robert Genn, the list of potential interruptions goes on and on. But yesterday a miracle occurred, and thanks to a cancellation, I actually had the incredible luxury of an entire uninterrupted day. And my studio is full of wonderful new paintings today thanks to the universe politely leaving me alone for a day. Thank-you, Universe!
Many threads going simultaneously
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
Before I had children I painted, but I felt limited by the ability to be completely self-indulgent. I had a part-time job and I went to the gym and then I went to the studio. It was fine, yet I felt I needed a richness that children would provide as well as less time to focus on my little self, which seemed like it could become a neurotic habit. I never intended to replace painting with children, in fact my greatest anxiety was how I was going to integrate the two and be nurturing and present to both. My children are now 6 and almost 9 years old. Since having them I have made great leaps in my maturity as well as in my creativity and spirituality. I started exhibiting my work when my first daughter was six months old. My daughters ground and inspire me. They put a level of stress on my life because as expected, now my time is shared, not all my own. This has increased my focus and ability to shift gears to work when the time is right. It has allowed me to work with others who can provide my children with appropriate care so that I can have some continuity in my work. Having trained many a caregiver I have become more social and less reclusive. My children have put me out into the world in many ways. I have also deepened my spirituality and become a yoga instructor and a Reiki practitioner since having them. With a steady practice in yoga and meditation I am able to be more present, and this skill supports my needs as a mom wearing many hats. It allows me to get deeply involved in my painting in the time I have in my studio and it allows me to be more alert and perceptive to life and this supports creativity. For me stretching to meet the challenges of the life that my interests have brought me both inwardly and outwardly has added a vitality to my passion for living and creating. It’s not always peachy, but it’s fulfilling, since my dedication is strong. I have learned to keep many threads going simultaneously and consistently enough to see the fruits.
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I’m my own worst interruption — always stepping back looking at the painting. And of course there is always the kids wanting something or someone calling them on the phone. Then there are the 40-plus tenants that always seem to have a problem with something or someone. I manage property and do the maintenance; my kitchen is our office as well as my studio. Interruption is normal around here for sure.
Factoring life into producing
by Paula Rey Cowdrey, Camano Island, WA, USA
Just as I finished reading “interrupted life” the smiling face of my husband entered my studio to ask if I would cut his hair. Perfect timing. Yesterday he was angling to set up a fishing trip with me — but all of this planning depended on when and how I would meet my deadlines. One must factor life into producing. There are so many moments that you have to scrape and crawl to get the time to make the work. Your description of all the activities that come into that space made me crack up as I had many years as a Mom artist.
Likes business as much as art
by Lauren Perkins, Newborough, Victoria, Australia
I am just beginning, so I’m starting to understand the self-doubt that comes with being an artist. However, I also love working on my business side of art as much as the art itself! I love having my art-making constantly on my mind, even though I can’t be creating all the time. I definitely agree that the busy-ness of it all keeps the mind active, especially as a mother with two boys! And finally, in the late night hours I can have my clear times of solitude and peace to create my work, which I look forward to all day. I think it is what keeps me going!
White stuff on painting
by Patricia Ross, Chase, BC, Canada
I have an oil painting that has decided to collect white (almost looks like mold) in the grooves of the paint. Upon calling an art store they suggested soap and water, possibly ammonia for cleaning. Do you have any suggestions? Soap and water has not worked. It disappears when moist but upon drying the white thingys return. Am I using the wrong soap? (Sunlight) Did I mention the painting has been sold… and has developed these whitey thingys while sitting in my studio for 4 months… I’m kinda freakin’. Your suggestions would be appreciated.
(RG note) This seems fishy to me. I take it the painting is only four months old — this is very early for mold — and if it’s coming from damp it’s particularly funny if the disease has not hit other paintings in your studio. Also, it doesn’t sound to me like a common case of water-based “bloom.” There’s the possibility of degrading white pigment either in the painting or in the primer which may be breaking down. This might be caused by not enough binder (oil, latex, animal glue or acrylic emulsion) in the primer. Try rubbing in a 50/50 mixture of turpentine and Copal oil medium so that the mixture penetrates into the grooves. Then gently wipe the surface to get rid of excess shine. If this doesn’t get it stopped I’d say you have major troubles ahead with this painting.
Length of clickbacks
by Robert Genn
Thank you to all those who wrote to give advice on the length of these clickbacks. The recommendations were pretty well equal between “just about the right amount,” and “more — give me more.” One thing was clear: Busy artists favor short and to-the-point letters. If we had our wish most of your letters would be of a manageable size — about 150 words is ideal. Having said that there are often letters (like Linda Saccoccio’s letter above) that we feel express so well what is going on that to edit them would be a shame. Readers also like funny, personal or human-interest stuff.
Power of the internet
by Henryk Ptasiewicz, St Louis, MO, USA
Your letters and insights are a regular part of my daily e-mail, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate them. I think Howard Dean got the insight to the power of the internet after reading your letters. I wouldn’t miss them for the world. Regarding the clickbacks, I do like the option of seeing miscellaneous topics gathered separately.
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, 2004.
That includes Carita Gould who wrote, “My life is always an interruption. In our family business my husband was constantly saying, “If I just wasn’t interrupted so often.” I said, “Interruptions are your job.”
And also David Sharpe who quoted John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans.”
And Peter Shulman who wrote, “Every letter you write seems to hit home and could be answered.”