The downside of isolation

Dear Artist, A fellow I know, whose name will go unmentioned here because he doesn’t want to be seen hanging out in lousy company, lives alone in a sunless forest.

On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau moved into an old cabin on Walden Pond near Concord, Mass. ‘He needed,’ said Emerson, ‘to get himself together and write.’

He’s a regular latter-day Thoreau, and he’s been at it for twenty years — never been to McDonald’s, doesn’t have TV, and boils his own socks. You may know the type. Having abandoned painting for the carving of gargoyles on the overhead beams of his cabin, he often takes the position that “Art dealers are thieves,” “Cars are the root of evil,” “Lawyers are unmitigated scumbags,” “Psychiatrists are smug creeps,” and “Women are high maintenance.” He hasn’t filed a tax return in 27 years. As far as I can see, he eats mainly huckleberries. In degree, all of us who prefer some form of isolation tend to hold strong opinions. Recently, I found it difficult to pick up the phone and give familial appreciation to my lawyer-cousin, Jack, who just bought a new Hummer. As artists, we may often be solitary in our work, but we need not be solitary beings. Further, while our art may invite a sense of entitlement and uniqueness, it’s a bit of a stretch, like my woodsy friend, to feel superior to others. Right now I’m reading the galley proof of Eric Maisel’s new book, Making Your Creative Mark.. Eric (a psychiatrist) has a chapter on empathy, in which he advises how to be chummy with everyone who might be of use to you in your artistic career. When the book comes out in April, I’m taking a copy into the woods. The forest-guy has nothing against words. Attitudes may be inherited, but most are developed over time — often at the University of Hard Knocks. But those who make the choice of full isolation estrange themselves from one of the great gifts — that of also seeing our marvelous biosphere through the eyes of others. Interconnection and empathic knowledge of our human family are the high-flying flags of civilization. We’re all in this together and no one really knows how the plot will work out. As artists, we need to inhale life in all its forms. When you combine great art with great human relationships, the sun may shine in the forest.

In the plein-air painting event, we are quietly adrift on a great river of temporary solitude, alone with our tools and our wits, if only for an hour.

Best regards, Robert PS: “Many artists (like all human beings) alienate their peers and their supporters by interacting poorly with them.” (Eric Maisel) Esoterica: On the few occasions when I’ve tried total isolation, I’ve grovelled my way back to the company of others. Partial and limited-time isolation, on the other hand, is how we re-set the compass of our souls. In the plein-air painting event, we are quietly adrift on a great river of temporary solitude, alone with our tools and our wits, if only for an hour. This sort of artistic quiet time is perhaps the most cathartic of all, for it anchors us to ourselves and brings us eventually to the wisdom of reconnection. FYI, Samantha and I recently made a short video called Shenandoah. We’re on the river, and you can see it here.   Light and shadow by Gordon Soaring Hawk, Hildale, UT, USA  

FLDS Church Compound, Hildale, Utah

You’ve often spoken of the interplay of light and shadow — necessary elements that allow us to see the contrast, and thus gain insight. Where I live is near the infamous polygamous community (The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) of Colorado City. For much of their history, they have been isolated. The results are becoming glaringly apparent. On the other hand, though only a stone’s throw from the town, we live on a piece of heaven — a retreat. What we experience is a pervasive sense of peace and solitude — something all of us can use more of. I feel that these two elements that describe a sense of aloneness are light and shadow. I have been isolated — and it is often unpleasant. On the other hand, solitude is a gift to be savored and treasured.   The yearly retreat by Lina Daukas, Long Beach, CA, USA   Your observation that “temporary isolation is how we reset the compass of our souls” struck a chord with me. Once a year I go on a one-week silent, guided retreat. It is something I crave and need desperately because my life tends to be a busy and unavoidably noisy one. You’re right; this is how I get anchored, calmed, enriched and newly powered with the spiritual energy coming from God, other retreatants and nature surrounding us. Thank you for reminding me of how critical this is to my work and my life.   The need to show by Russ Layton, Victoria, BC, Canada  

“Appetite 4 Destruction”
original painting
by Russ Layton

As artists we tend to work on our crafts alone, or in the company of nature or music… the latter being my choice. We remove ourselves, if we can, from people, kids, traffic, phones, and by doing that we become, to a degree, hermits. Then the opposite needs to occur when we want the world to see our accomplishments. We as artists are not all fortunate to have a lineup of buyers or galleries, and have to work hard at developing relationships, exhausting Social Media “friends” — presenting art to all sorts of online contests, magazines, etc., in the hope of sales and exposure. Who goes to all these “art” sites, and reads all these art magazines anyways… only other artists? I try to treat everyone as a client, but find it hard to take it to the next level of buyers. My art is geared to a younger audience with my particular styles, but I was wondering if you can touch on some marketing tips, or contacts or ideas in an upcoming letter. (RG note) Thanks, Russ. I’m going to do a letter sometime soon on Cory Trepanier. He’s a Canadian painter who lives a beautiful life without the benefit of dealers or galleries. In the meantime, if you search our website, you will find many guidelines and useful tips for rugged individuals thriving in our game. There are 3 comments for The need to show by Russ Layton
From: Darla — Mar 29, 2013

I wonder if a possible market would be all the DIY decorating sites online? The furniture and rugs for sale mostly have hefty price tags, and you might be able to sell originals or prints at a reasonable price.

From: Anonymous — Mar 29, 2013

Social media for artists seems to be only for artists. Your point is well taken. My solution to making a career in art has been to do another career for a pension and always paint what you want. You really need to paint for yourself instead of some elusive client.

From: Kim — Apr 02, 2013

I agree with Anonymous. There is so much heartache in chasing the market and dealing with insensitive sales people. When you make money some other way, there is less time for art and some people may question your commitment, but at least you have your dignity and paint what you want. If the work is good, there will be plenty of non-profit places to show your art. Very small fraction of artists find that sweet spot where they prosper financially by painting what they want. It’s worth trying but don’t bee too stubborn to pursue it into financial and emotional ruin.

  Opening up to other eyes by Marjorie Moeser, Toronto, ON, Canada  

acrylic painting
by Marjorie Moeser

I resigned from my well paying job in order to paint full time. Biting my nails, I pondered what to paint. I painted the entire house. Then, I gessoed canvases ad infinitum. Still no ideas. It wasn’t until I tore myself away from the distractions of home and the big city and holed up in my studio in the country, all by myself, that ideas started to churn. The creative juices started to flow. This isolation, me alone with my paints and canvas, soon evoked the Muse to descend upon me. I finally made a mark on one of those gessoed surfaces languishing in a corner. Things began to cook. Ideas poured out. I made up for lost time and produced a body of art worthy to be exhibited. This, my first solo show, was a great success, despite my dread of exposing my very soul to strangers. I learned the value of opening up to other eyes. Learning how people respond to one’s art is a curve every artist needs to deal with. The exposure creates growth. It takes the artist out of isolation and as such allows new perspectives, new insight into the creative process that the artist alone cannot bring to the forefront. As the poet, John Donne said, “No man is an island unto himself,” although Donne was referring to all strata of society, his concept of people interconnecting can easily be applied to those who make art.   Balance is key by Kaye Guerin, Tucson, AZ, USA  

“The Apache Raid”
oil painting
by Kaye Guerin

I am definitely a people person who loves teaching art and I get a thrill watching people “get it” and launch forward with their newfound knowledge. Yet, at the same time, I need isolation to work through my own creative ideas, to dream, to ponder, to work. At the end of this cycle of isolation I love to share the excitement of what I have discovered. So I really believe that, for the artist, balance is the key. I painted in groups for years, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the people, the experience, the friendships, it was not until I isolated myself (Oh, that was hard!) that I began to find my voice. Then I could share… so we need both in a balance that only the individual can determine.   A mean letter by Muoto Kuvaaja, Finland  

“Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window”
by Jan Vermeer

This very letter is somewhat strange and cuts in both ways. “You can change only yourself.” Now you are acting as though you are so much higher than the loner you describe is and so you can tell what is wrong with him. You make those hard knocks and harsh words yourself, they are not passive, happening of the nature but working of the fellow human beings. Why didn’t you say to your listeners, please don’t hit any more him or her but try to be understanding, patient and loving instead of mastering in other’s life. You have a lot of wisdom I’m sure but this is not nice. Guess you are so high already that you don’t hear me, because I’m a loner, too, and you have so much listener and followers. I could check your words exactly to make it all clear what there is wrong. But I don’t. I go back to my cave now, believing you are all mean and high on your success. There is 1 comment for A mean letter by Muoto Kuvaaja
From: Darla — Mar 29, 2013

I think what Robert was disparaging was the hermit’s distrust of practically everybody. He did say that it takes courage to separate yourself from society so that you can concentrate on your own work without distractions.

  We become the masterpiece by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA  

Yin Yang Symbol, Taoism’s Dance Of Opposites

As so often happens when I read one of your letters, I am filled with inspired thoughts and am lifted up from the mundane of life’s necessities. Your letter for today is particularly interesting because it is such a dichotomy to the beautiful video of Shenandoah. The contrast elegantly depicts the two aspects of life that are so opposite and yet so bound together to make up the human experience. Your idea of sharing with others, interacting to gain the fullness of what we each bring to the whole, is a truism. But your video depicts, to me anyway, the ultimate aloneness that we each must bear. I find that during the latter years we become more or less face-to-face with our own unique self, that self which is truly alone with its creator. We would, at least at times, love to hold hands with another throughout eternity, but this is not the scenario — we are ultimately alone with ourselves and the realities we perceive around us. There is a special beauty in this, and as sad as it may at times seem, there is also such a majestic and noble element to it that ultimately we wouldn’t want it any other way. It forces us to rise above the lesser to become the greater — and we become the masterpiece. The human spirit is marvelous, but the divine being that we are becoming is even more riveting, and well worth the struggle, though we haven’t much choice in it at any rate. As I am learning, every soul must seek its center and shine forth from there.   Another latter-day Thoreau? by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada  

“Algonquin Spruce Sentinel”
original painting
by Phil Chadwick

The “latter-day Thoreau” type sounds a bit like me — except I have an open gate policy for those hard working honest souls who do the right thing for the right reason. Money and personal gain are unimportant. The journey of life and personal integrity are everything. I don’t have any time for the self-serving, mindless consumers often regarded as pillars of society. Behind every great fortune you will find a great crime. Living at the end of “Deliverance Lane” provides sufficient isolation. The land and the lake are paradise and frankly there is no reason for me to leave. The pension is enough. My wife buys the groceries. I finally have time to paint. Nature takes my plein air painting to new places. The jabs of pure colour can be found but you have to be open to the inspiration and sometimes look for it. Not everybody gets it but I am hoping that more patrons will — sometime before I die would be good! Sanity and creativity are relative. Isolation fosters them but too much isolation could allow you to charge with a crazed expression off the cliff. The artist needs the balanced support of those good souls to stay grounded – everything in moderation. Like Thoreau, simple things fill my day. It would be good to start bee keeping again; maybe tap some sugar maples; build more bird houses. I certainly want to start grinding my own horse radish again if I can find some roots. My wife stops me from carving gargoyles in the wood ceiling but maybe that would be a fun project like the Sistine Chapel… hmm, now there’s an idea.    

Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The downside of isolation

From: Chris Everest — Mar 26, 2013

I run.

From: Xenophia — Mar 26, 2013

I have always been my own best friend.

From: Sandra Taylor Hedges — Mar 26, 2013

Rule #6 – Creativity needs the company of Creativity; without the input, companionship and friendship of other creative souls we become self absorbed, miserable and dysfunctional artists

From: ReneW — Mar 26, 2013

Who would know or even care if you were a recluse. That is not the essence of a life that was lived. We are social animals and those that live in isolation fail to fulfill the meaning of being human.

From: Jackie Knott — Mar 27, 2013
From: Ron Unruh — Mar 27, 2013

I think of my own changing life situation. My career was in service to people and privacy was something I carved out within a socially demanding calendar. I treasured solitude. My home and yard activities were a retreat from my office and appointments. Occasionally scheduled days at a lodge, away from routines replenished my personal supplies to re-enter my social commitments. Retired now for four years, and having sold my home to enter the downsized world of strata living, compels me to learn new ways, both to cope with a high density of neighbours and eager eyes and to generate solitude which my temperament and interests require.

From: Lynette Hayes — Mar 27, 2013
From: Ana Guerra — Mar 27, 2013

I watched your short videos in awe. You are an amazing painter and writer as well.

From: Ellie Boyd — Mar 27, 2013
From: — Mar 27, 2013

OMG. We could be brothers! Fortunately we just sold our cabin and my wife demands someone else do our taxes. (but I have a cupboard full of huckleberries, and we do live in the “outback” of eastern Montana.), Great read ! This one caused pause to reflect.

From: Adele Galgut of Face Facts — Mar 27, 2013

Your bi-weekly “injections” of all things Artists enjoy reading and rumenating on, are valuable. This Letter is equally brilliant and articulately spot-on. Besides your Art, you really have a gift of saying the “truest” things that non of us dare to say ….out loud. Thank you. In appreciation for your perceptive views on Life and Living it “out loud” through Art.

From: Brad Michael Moore — Mar 27, 2013

The funny thing about isolation is, when you seek it out – and find it – you fall into it… Discovering the path to climb your ways back out can be a hell of a collection of travails!

From: Mary — Mar 27, 2013

When does introversion become isolation? I am an introvert – far more comfortable in a small group of friends/acquaintances, less so in a larger group. Some acquaintances describe me as isolated, but I am in contact with my comfort group electronically and through calligraphy. If I were to live in a somewhat physically inaccessible area, but had my electronic (phone/computer) access, that would not be an issue. The example you gave is somewhat like a Luddite :) I worked with someone who eschewed a lot of modern technology but is an extrovert with diverse likes/hobbies. He is a retired firefighter who collects dolls.

From: Rick Rotante — Mar 27, 2013

Your nameless friend isn’t honoring the humanity which he is a part and is doing himself a great disservice. Mind you I agree with his opinons concerning television, McDonalds, cars, Lawyers and psychiatrists. Regarding women I would need more time and space than allotted here. Being alone for a period of time isn’t a problem. Being an artist who is a recluse or a hermit goes against the whole idea of art. Art is a communication. Art is best appreciated when shared. Without art being seen, creating it is pointless even for the artist recluse. He may enjoy the process but he is not only spinning his wheels needlessly but one can’t say he’s creating anything. Imagine he finishes his gargoyles, then has a massive coronary and his cabin containing the artwork burns to the ground without a trace. Not only his art becomes pointless but so too his contribution to art plus his whole life is null and void. He might as well have not been born. By not contributing to a social structure of some kind, you are dishonoring the nature of life itself. If it were meant that only one person were to survive, then no one would survive. The idea of art would never be a factor. Even Thoreau came out of the woods. That’s why he wrote the book. To share the experience.

From: Rosemary Avery — Mar 27, 2013

Love your letter – one does need isolation during our life – but this man must have really been hurt by someone or some thing – l wonder and l only say wonder if selfishness isn’t a factor?

From: Oscar Bearinger — Mar 27, 2013

“Many artists alienate their peers and their supporters by interacting poorly with them.” So do many psychiatrists (in my experience).

From: Louis B Bessette — Mar 27, 2013

Artists who don’t settle down to the reality of solitary development, don’t make it.

From: Phillip Eddy — Mar 27, 2013

We are indeed on a great “river of temporary solitude.” And like the painter in the video, we drift in circles, dreaming, committing, and fading off into the sunset. There may be nothing better.

From: Bruce B — Mar 27, 2013

I find total isolation to be limiting as you describe, but have, with the failure of yet another relationship to realize that living alone is desirable. Evenings of quiet solitude with my own agenda and time to read, think and decompress are an ideal for me it seems. Working in a high stress job(chef) the luxury of being alone for part of the day is quite lovely. I do enjoy visiting the store where I know the clerk or having a beer in a pub when I feel like it, it keeps from becoming a curmudgeonly hermit, which is very easy country for me to inhabit. I have come to be aware that this is my best state and find myself curious if I will ever enter into another live-in relationship.

From: Julie Wiegand — Mar 27, 2013

Excellent and clearly put —as usual —-I do so admire and agree—–selective isolation yes———complete —shun the world because they are all evil and or beneath me—-no——- These comments come from my studio in the Missouri—not so isolated but separate—countryside. I hardly watch TV—–or other media—-but i want above all to know and live with the mindset that we are all one—–and each being on this earth has something amazing and wonderful to offer—it may be hidden under years of conditioned sarcasm and angst ——but it’s there —–that’s what makes this suffering world marvelous still .

From: Diana Rutherford — Mar 27, 2013
From: Eleanor Blair — Mar 27, 2013

The world seems to be a little too much with me these days. Funny how often your letters speak to some very specific thing that happens to be going on here. Driving around today from errand to errand, it crossed my mind that maybe it would be a good thing to live somewhere where no one knew me. Then, expecting a room full of six-year-olds at the Boys and Girls Club, I found one teenaged boy, instead. We sat and drew together for an hour. We talked about proportion and form, things he hadn’t heard about before. I remembered why I like living in town, and knowing other people. Gainesville, Florida

From: Cameron Loftus — Mar 27, 2013
From: Jennifer Cocke — Mar 29, 2013

Every January I enter into a ‘self imposed hibernation.’ I continue to go to my day job and do regular day to day tasks, but I turn down offers of any social activity (after Christmas I’ve pretty much had it). This down time allows me a breather from people and I use it to start new painting projects. By February I’m ready to be social again and I’ve put in a good start on some new work. It’s important to take a ‘time out’ once in a while, too much is expected of us and to continuously give in to that demand is unhealthy. I see nothing wrong with hibernating any other time of year either. If things get crazy unplug the phone, set your email to vacation notification mode, and just paint.

From: Eloise Lovell — Mar 29, 2013

You asked for my comments and today decided to share. When I was a young woman I had the passion to paint, but I was very inexperienced. then my babies started to come along-six! I could no longer paint as my distractions led to impatience and anger. So I packed it up for many years. Now retired, I have started to paint again…in isolation, without distraction. Cannot do it otherwise. Plein-aire is good, but distraction will not allow me to complete the painting I desire, usually. The only exception being if I have been asked a question by a young artist, then I feel delighted to help. My husband and I live in a relatively rural area and I love this quietness. Have not included any photos of my work. When I am out with friendly folk, although I get the inspiration to paint, I just can’t…too much inner frustration. My comment for the day. Thanks for asking and enjoy your writing. I write as well!

From: Terrie Christian — Mar 29, 2013

For me, there is a difference between isolation and some alone time. Isolation happens when I am not feeling well and withdraw from others in an unhealthy way. Many years ago, I learned from taking the Meijer’s Briggs that I was pretty far along on the introvert scale versus being an extrovert. This was extremely helpful to me as I learned that it was just a way to restore my energy bank. I also love to be with people, but then just need some time to recharge. I think it is important to recognize the difference. While your friend’s isolation seems extreme, it is wonderful that you value him and plan to go share some words with him. I find that painting with others is a very good thing for me. I go to an open studio where there is no instructor, just a group of artists that paint together once a week. Even when I am not feeling like going, to get myself out the door a struggle, once I have gone, I come home so much happier! We very much all need each other!

From: Jeanean Martin — Mar 29, 2013
From: Terry Richard — Mar 29, 2013

I have been an artist for 53 years and like most of us, have had good and bad years and share of bad experiences in dealing with Galleries and Gallery relationships. I’m happy to say that I have been successful and have had many return clients. Right now, I am going through a period of bad health at 76, and the loss of a daughter. I feel that I have no more to say when it comes to my painting. I am represented by three wonderful galleries and have had a lasting relationship and respect all three. After I finished the portrait of my daughter, I feel drained and burnt out. I am hoping that this in time will change but right now, it doesn’t seem that way. I want to thank you for the inspiration you have given me and so many others that subscribe to your newsletters.

From: JENNIFER — Mar 30, 2013

I’ve followed you a number of years without realizing could make comments…so you can see how much I’m out of it :). I’m so out of it I’m not even in with the later day Thoreau’s. Just wanted say how much I’ve enjoyed your writing. Really enjoy your sense of humor…jsut read it again and got even more out of it the second time around. This one I forwarded to my husband and sister, psych practitioner and professional speaker respectfully.

From: Hanna — Apr 02, 2013

Terry, thank you for writing about your experience. I am very sorry about your loss. There are many friends that would love to share inspiration with you. I wish you a better time ahead.

From: valerie norberry vanorden — Jun 18, 2013

I’m forcing myself out of any isolation by doing the Farmer’s Market and doing names and meanings of names in calligraphy, then signing up the parents for house portraits.

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Water and sky

oil painting, 16 x 20 inches by Sarah Gayle Carter, ME, USA

  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 Irene Peery of Charlottesville, VA, USA who wrote, “I hope someday you get to come to the Shenandoah and visit. It is a lovely river, flowing through farmland, not too deep these days, but pleasant. It is surrounded in places by the Blue Ridge Mountains and empties out into the Potomac at Harper’s Ferry. You can canoe it from Luray to Harper’s Ferry but may have to portage in places. You certainly will find many sites for plein air painting.” And also Carla Mazzone of Dunlap, TN, USA, who wrote, “Regarding your five-minute video Shenandoah — what an absolutely lovely arrangement of one of my favorite folk tunes! Listening to it and viewing the peaceful river at the same time was very relaxing. I tend to lean to the lone side of the interaction scale but not as much as I used to. I live in the mountains of Tennessee which is so very beautiful. However I do love the energy and interaction of other artists.”    

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