Dear Artist,

While boating near our local tidal bars we watch flocks of sandpipers flying and moving together like giant amoebas. Changing, reforming, glittering as they make their turns — gray, flashing silver, then black against the blue as they shoot up to dodge the falcons — the bird-clouds themselves appearing as intelligent beings.


James Surowiecki

A book that has caught a lot of people’s interest lately is The Wisdom of Crowds by James Suroweicki. He concludes that crowds are often wiser than we think, and are capable of making right and even democratic decisions. And while crowds are generally leaderless, they can often be trusted to protect an individual’s interests. At one point Suroweicki gives the dynamics of flocks of starlings: Individuals ought to stay toward the middle of the group — two and a half bird-lengths apart — and the one who first sights danger or sees opportunity momentarily leads. Thus, automatically and in self-interest, the group’s next maneuver is determined. Some of this bird stuff has implications for artists and also for the art-collecting public.

Art schools, teachers, mentors, demonstrators, even books and art sites, while they may espouse freedom and independent action, nevertheless offer a kind of leadership. Creative trends and fashions also serve this purpose — and those who buck the system, like the sandpiper that flies from the flock, can get hammered. I’ve always wondered if schools might be run without principals, companies without bosses, countries without presidents. As far-fetched as the idea sounds, it seems to me that it’s in the arts where the role of leadership is the least effective. In Public galleries, for example, “party line” curatorship often excludes true winners and spins off the stragglers. The story of leadership in academies is equally spotty.

While we may be part of a greater group, it’s the maintenance of our individual flying space as artists and human beings that’s important. How to be aware of the whole and still manifest ourselves as individualists. Understanding that we need to achieve some sort of balance is the place to start. Fortunately for some of us, a lot of Surowiecki’s conclusions lead to a system that is simply market-based.

Best regards,


PS: “If four basic conditions are met, a crowd’s ‘collective intelligence’ will produce better outcomes than a small group of experts. Wise crowds need (1)diversity of opinion; (2)independence of members from one another; (3)decentralization; and (4)a good method for aggregating opinion.” (James Surowiecki)

Esoterica: The Painter’s Keys site is an example of the cumulative wisdom of a greater community. We automatically present a balance and a wide range of input. This added knowledge is never static and does not necessarily equate with leadership or even recipe. When we look at our twice-weekly clickbacks we’re impressed with the ongoing diversity and independent thinking. Everybody remarks on the integrity of these pages. This gives me a chance to thank all who contribute to our valuable flight.


Procedure for herding cows and swine
by Christine Collier-Trevino, Hopkinsville, KY, USA


watercolour, 18 x 22 inches
by Christine Collier-Trevino

There is an interesting website called Boids that deals precisely with this topic. I visited it and by following one of the links, learned the procedure to herd cows and swine. The knowledge came in handy just days later when I came across some cattle in the road. I enlisted the help of a woman who drove up behind me. By placing my body in a critical stationary juncture while she walked forward under my direction, we herded the cattle easily through a break in the fence!

(RG note) Thanks, Christine. It’s information like this that takes some of the frustration out of plein air.


Dynamics of crowds
by Jo Scott B, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Byzantine Berries”
acrylic on board, 16 x 20 inches
by Jo Scott B

Humans, like birds, come in varieties: not all are happy in a gaggle or flock. No artist really wants to be “just like” someone else, but nor can individuality be forced. Embarking on a road of self-discovery, jointly with the creative process, reveals the unique way we experience and react. I hate being told what to do. Weekly critiques at art school fired me up and I think my professors quickly learned to steer me by telling me something was impossible. Crowds offer comfort to many — a sense of belonging. The downside of the crowd mentality is the strength gained by mobs, leading to anarchy and destruction.


Eagles, not sparrows
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA

It is the eagle that soars high above and alone, and this is where the leaders are. In art groups I see everyone sharing their paths and everyone doing the same things, ending up in the same place. I feel that we as artists need to be eagles and not sparrows. Or even the ugly duckling that stands out in the crowd. I may migrate south with the rest of them, just to see where they go. Diving down to strike on a target and back up again looking for the next. Not just surviving the journey, but taking advantage of every opportunity along the way.


Morale flopped when new boss appointed
by Joy Cooper, Valley Head, WV, USA


“Blue Crawfish — Canbarus Monongahensis”
watercolour, 11 x 15 inches
by Joy Cooper

A friend worked for a non-profit charitable organization in Ohio. When their executive director left, the “inmates” were in charge during the transition. They decided that, if their work was going well and it wouldn’t impact others, they could take a “wellness day” to enjoy another facet of life. No one abused this privilege and no one had to pretend to be sick to take advantage of other opportunities. Morale soared and productivity didn’t suffer. They worked — flew — together so each could enjoy this special treat. When the new executive director was appointed, he stopped the practice. Within a short period morale took a dive and more than 30% of the personnel had left, deprived of their group dynamics.


Honouring the gift
by Rosalind Pinsent, Bellevue, NF, Canada

Having worked as a teacher as well as in music all my life I know how artists of any kind… the poet, the lover, the dreamer…are squashed. Hierarchies, administrations, all forms of leadership will have their own sometimes very rigid ideas of how things should be. Being at odds philosophically, theologically, and spiritually with these leaders doesn’t exactly endear me to their hearts. As a result, “Gift” or “Talent” or “Energy” or whatever else that makes us strong and unique tends to get stopped in their tracks. In these cases it would be lovely to be leaderless. On the other hand, given a person who understands the principles of leadership (I was also a school administrator)… then the potential is great for all artists. Calling forth the gift, affirming that gift, supporting that gift, really nourishing and honoring the gift… this kind of leader could make a positive difference.


Universal collective intelligence
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey

A true leader is selected and accepted by the group. The head has power. The real decision-making is behind the scenes. The boss, the manager, the president may be the head, yet act as public relations. Behind the scenes there is collective intelligence of the group. They allow the head to be their leader, as long as that head is the most intelligent of the group. If not: 1– the group will get a new leader, 2– the group will get divided, or 3– the group will keep the head only as an image — as the public relations while other brain(s) make the decisions. In the long run, the acting leader is always the crowds’ collective intelligence. Only time is relative. The birds allow their leaders to lead for only minutes, men allow their leaders to lead for years. When we take time out of the picture, there is only collective intelligence in the universe.


Courage to be a leader
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA


“Avocados on the Table”
watercolour, 18 x 18 inches
by Helena Tiainen

Collective consciousness works well for the other animals. We, the people, have to some degree lost our way. For example, isn’t it true that fashion is decided by a few individuals in powerful positions who decide what colors and shapes and textures are going to be “in” this season? Your options become determined by these individuals unless you can manufacture for yourself according to your own needs and desires. A lot of people have become “sheep,” letting others determine the direction. We live in a mass culture that could use a large dose of consciousness. Few people have what it takes to go and make their own product if they cannot find it out there in the marketplace. People settle for less all the time.

We all are born into a world that already exists and are brainwashed from the minute we take our first breath. We meet the expectations of the society we are born into. How many of us take the time to really dig and find what we really want and like instead of what we are told to want and like? It’s easy to be a follower — you get a lot of support. It takes courage to be a good leader.


Liberty and freedom among artists
by Jim Pescott


“Always Behind”
acrylic on canvas, 30 x 24 inches
by Jim Pescott

A review of the word “leader” in my thesaurus reveals the synonyms “captain, chief, commander, conductor, counselor, director, guide, head, principal, ruler, superior.” It is interesting that “artist” is not listed amongst these leaders even though individual artists often find the courage to explore places and to express things no one else has. The antonym in the same thesaurus for leader is “follower”: not rocket science but clear enough and the reference seems to support the paradigm about leaders. Thankfully “artist” was not listed as an antonym either. Given that artists are not specifically profiled as leaders, or followers, in such traditional reference materials, perhaps it is this perception that allows the scope of liberty and freedom artists treasure in their work and in their lives? At the same time, this reflects our North American culture and sense of things; it may not be so elsewhere.


Mannerist in one’s own style
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Paynes Prairie”
oil painting
by Eleanor Blair

Hiram Williams used to warn his students against becoming “a mannerist in one’s own style.” I believe he was warning us away from the bad habits all artists seem to develop after a few million brush strokes. I’ve seen a lot of really awful work produced by painters who paint unconsciously, who disengage the mind and let the hand have full control. I don’t think there’s any virtue in over-intellectualizing a painting in process, but there is a kind of nonlinear, non-logical intelligence that carries a painter much farther than simple mindlessness. I do agree with Joseph Tany that as we “deepen into action” we understand less and less about how we paint, but that’s a mystery that needs no explanation.


Use for plastic tubing
by Pat Weekley, Clovis, NM, USA

My husband was on oxygen and there was lots of tubing so he could go from room to room. One day, after he passed away, I was carrying a finished pastel and the hanging wire really cut into my hands… viola’… I thought of a way to use the tubing! When framing a piece I slip the hanging wire into about a four inch section of the tubing and finish as usual. The tubing cuts easily with scissors. When carrying a picture I slide the plastic tubing section so that I hold onto it instead of the wire. I move it to one side when hanging the picture. This tubing can be purchased at drug stores or medical supply houses. One package would do lots of pictures.


Travels through the paintbox
by Karen Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada

I was delighted by the most recent clickbacks — there were so many eloquent, passionate people talking about how they do what they do. Wonderful to see where they all come from, and their expressive, varied works, all great and so different. I always look forward to my letter. It is all inspiring… As to the paint, and colour, I am about to read a book called Colour, by Victoria Finlay. (You may have already mentioned it) It’s about the history of painters’ pigments.

(RG note) Thanks, Karen. Colour: Travels through the Paintbox, by Victoria Finlay was quoted enthusiastically in some previous letters. As well as a great entertainment, the book contains little-known and often surprising info for anyone who pushes paint. My stories of yellow and red, and responses are at: http://painterskeys.com/yellow/ and http://painterskeys.com/red/








Pencil drawing
by Kevin Llewellyn, Hollywood, CA, 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, 2004.

That includes Vicki Owen who wrote, “Regarding leaderlessness, look how Alcoholics Anonymous is or is not “governed.” It’s a “society” that has ever taken the challenge and met it. And it works.”

And also A Kampwerth who wrote, “James Surowiecki has a theory that has been described before. It was called the ‘Communist Manifesto,’ Sometimes these utopian ideals overlook our basic diversity of personalities, motivation, etc.”

And also Patricia Chesterman  of Nanaimo, B.C. Canada, who wrote, “I know that one should be informed, and when one does not know what one does not know, and then has a vote, it is not a wise culling of opinion to make policy — big, or small.”

And also Lyn Cherry of Maryville, Tennessee, USA who wrote, “I plan to maintain my individual flying space and not fly with the crowd!”




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