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.
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.
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
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
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.
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Opening up to other eyes
by Marjorie Moeser, Toronto, ON, Canada
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
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
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.
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We become the masterpiece
by Nancy Schempp, Bristol, RI, USA
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
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.
Enjoy the past comments below for The downside of isolation…
Water and sky
oil painting, 16 x 20 inches
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.”