Why you must love life


Dear Artist,

“This is why you must love life,” says Bernadette Fox, the artist-turned-wife-and-mother in Maria Semple’s 2012 comedic novel about art, failure and the domestic cage. “In one day you’re offering up your social security number to the Russian Mafia; two weeks later you’re using the word calve as a verb.” Bernadette, a once-lauded star-chitect is languishing in the suburbs of Seattle, unable to put her finger on the cause of her erratic behavior, anxiety, sleeplessness and misanthropy. She loves her husband and child, but something has gone terribly wrong with herself. When Bernadette sees her mentor Paul after 21 years, she spews a tightly packed monologue on the meaningless frustrations of her day-to-day. Paul receives the broken dam with the clarity of fact: “Are you done?” he replies. “You can’t honestly believe any of this nonsense. People like you must create. If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.”

Blue Landscape (Paysage bleu), 1958 colour lithograph on Arches Wove Paper 22 4/5 × 29 7/10 in by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

Blue Landscape (Paysage bleu), 1958
colour lithograph on Arches Wove Paper
58 × 75.5 cm
by Marc Chagall (1887-1985)

If you’re a creative person, the secret to loving life is work. While simple to demote when other human callings present themselves and easy to drop when the inevitable difficulties of true innovation and elbow grease arrive, work gestates at the heart of your happiness and self-hood. For creative people, there is no substitute for work — no matter how temporarily comfortable or demanding.

A friend who is a wife, mother of three and a shift-working, practicing nurse midwife, recently texted me the results of a study. The journal piece was called Women Are Not Better at Multitasking. They Just Do More Work, Studies Show. Apparently, no one is good at multitasking. When asked what it felt like during the rush hour at the Tastee Diner where he works in Bethesda, MD, short order cook Shawn Swinson said, “Like you’re in an insane asylum. It’s almost unbearable.” I couldn’t help but think of Bernadette. On the flip side, idleness, purposelessness, procrastination and distraction are equally soul-destroying, especially if there’s an alternate story to be coaxed and toiled into existence through work. “It is necessary to work, if not from inclination, at least from despair,” wrote Charles Baudelaire. “Everything considered, work is less boring than amusing oneself.”

Le Cirque bleu, 1950 oil on canvas 34.9 x 26.7 cm by Marc Chagall

Le Cirque bleu, 1950
oil on canvas
34.9 x 26.7 cm
by Marc Chagall



PS: “Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave.” (Constantin Brancusi)

Esoterica: “We’d pass icebergs floating in the middle of the ocean,” Bernadette relays in the third act of her story, after she’s set her mind to what needs to happen in order for her to break her own funk. “They were gigantic, with strange formations carved into them. They were so haunting and majestic you could feel your heart break, but really they’re just chunks of ice and they mean nothing.” In that nothing — of appreciation, of inspiration, of frustration and the vacuum of space that waits for you — is your highest expression and most tender, explored and challenged self. “Work isn’t to make money,” wrote Marc Chagall. “You work to justify life.”

Place de la Concorde , 1961 colour lithograph 99.1 × 76.2 cm by Marc Chagall

Place de la Concorde , 1961
colour lithograph
99.1 × 76.2 cm
by Marc Chagall

Richard Linklater’s film adaptation of Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette is currently in theatres.

“To find joy in work is to discover the fountain of youth.” (Pearl S. Buck)

The Letters: Vol. 1 and 2, narrated by Dave Genn, are available for download on Amazon, here. Proceeds of sales contribute to the production of The Painter’s Keys.

“Without work all life goes rotten.” (Albert Camus)





  1. When I read Paul’s reply “If you don’t create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society.” I could physically hear my mother laughing and imagine her nodding, even though she is 900 km away and nowhere to be seen. This is so very true for me and also what Chagall said about work not being about money – you work to justify life. The money seems to come anyway but it is not the reason. Money by itself would never get me to work this hard! But the curve of an arbutus tree will or how the afternoon light slips between the trees or the grand splash of a wave in a winter storm. These things can make me hold a brush until my arm is stiff and get up in the middle of the night to move wet paint around on a large canvas, simply because sleep has solved a painting problem. The real true is, I paint because I am a painter and there is always work to do…. driven by passion and desire and executed with a love for our natural everyday world. Another great post Sarah! Thank you!

  2. I got chills reading this. I experienced something so similar. I always had a creative job and loved it. When I had children and gave up working outside the home, I became depressed and have experienced all kinds of illnesses. I squeezed in my artwork in between the small gaps that presented themselves. Not enough. Stress ravaged me. Raising children and managing all the aspects of home in this busy age sucked the soul out of me and my body sent me messages, “If you ignore your soul, there will be consequences!” But I couldn’t see a way out. No help. No family around. Now my children are grown and time space has opened up and I paint more, create more and can sometimes just “do nothing” which is integral to my imagination, my creating, my soul. Thank you for this! I will see the movie!

  3. Jonathan Wiltshire on

    “Art is a kind of innate drive that seizes a human being and makes him its instrument. To perform this difficult office it is sometimes necessary for him to sacrifice happiness and everything that makes life worth living for the ordinary human being.”
    ― C.G. Jung

  4. Highly recommend this book. Read it a few years ago, during a time my life was calling to me, to create, to move, to get out of a rut. A great write, a fun story, and a good message.
    Do it now.

  5. Dear Sara,
    I applaud your letter.

    You are a great inspiration just like Robert was. God bless you and your own creative impulse which as you say without elbow grease goes nowhere, nor does the soul.

    Love it, and enjoyed the images. Fantasy (as you know far more than ideal daydreaming) is mother of creativity.
    May I suggest a piece on that? Carl Jung is big on that.

    With much love, respect and affection.

    PS. My new website is coming up with archetypal constellations abstract art. Will keep you posted. I can shoot u a few images if you have the time.

    Nader , Archetypal Pattern Analyst

  6. Wow…..this article is mind-bending, a little over my head to grasp all the tidbits herein. But I do get the point…..work and work some more….create and create and create some more. I’ll try to control any of my erratic behavior and get back to my room.

  7. I am always saddened when I read the sentiment, “domestic cage” when referring to marriage and motherhood, while extolling the idea that work outside of the home is of far greater value. The real fact is that neither needs to be mutually exclusive. I am personally set free to fly and work on all of my talents, including art, by and with a supportive husband. May I also recommend the life of artist, Minerva Teichert, 1888-1976 as a real world example of a balanced and well-lived life. She was trained at the Mark Hopkins Art School, Art Institute of Chicago and Art Students League of New York. Robert Henri was one of her teachers and mentor. Marriage and motherhood were not a cage. She spoke of art as her passion and her husband as her purpose for being. Her life was not one of ease or wealth. She was a wife, mother, rancher, and prolific artist all at the same time. Her numerous and much beloved art works hang in homes, church buildings and temples. Art is a God-given gift, worthy of our time and effort to develop. But, so also are our family relationships a heaven sent blessing. And, our influence as father or mother has an even greater impact on the world than most of our artistic endeavors ever will.

  8. Sometimes we may feel like things “cage us in”, whether family, work, or life circumstances and for some creative people may be so overwhelming, they cease to create. I believe that by honouring our specific gifts while balancing aspects of life, which either energize or exhaust our creative spirit, must be “worked” through. However, sometimes we may find that what we think keeps us from our creative passion, is what actually fuels it’s to flow. Artist’s can find their way, and like Sara says need to “work” in order to find it, elbow grease and all….and I say let us at least try to smile if we can’t whistle while we work, trying to live life to the fullest- It’s actually all ART!

  9. I spent the morning working with my adult Autistic son trying to re-create an ancient happy meal toy in polymer clay. He doesn’t heed proper handling instruction, refused to bake/cure it, and had to use the plastic model under the clay as an armature. I managed to bake it while he was otherwise occupied, but the plastic armature melted, and the red boots split open. Then I turned to epoxy clay, which I just happened to have in red, and molded new boots around the split ones. I convinced him it needs to dry….the epoxy clay will harden….and hopefully he will be happy. I worked hard on this little trinket because love is hard work. Art cannot be a substitute for love, only an expression of it.

  10. Thank you all,
    I got quite misty reading this letter then the wonderful comments!
    All hit home so well to help me feel at home. Oh yes, I can be a menace when I am taking a “break” from painting. I love it when these common human traits can be so well defined, then solutions found. It really isn’t a mystifying solution, for me, just keep making art. It is a mystifying why I don’t sometimes, but even that is mattering less with each year. Just pick it back up and onward :)

    Thank you Sara and everyone!

  11. Your letter was so wonderful. I loved it! You described the artists mind with great understanding. Each day is planned around getting into my studio as much as I can.
    The letters were bonuses.

  12. I have just finished a summer with too much in it – physical problems combined with too much company, worry about having to move, and too much heat – so that I have to painted for two months. All the beautiful Plein air work by my many artist friends I see on line is more a rebuke than an inspiration. I am now in recovery mode, with rest and catching up with business, like prepping work for shows, and parts of my self are starting to return, but will really not be here until I am back in the studio.

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Featured Workshop

Painting Autumn in the Poconos
October 11, 2019 to October 16, 2019


Join David Beale for his annual fall water media workshop sponsored by the Picture House!  This year we will paint in the scenic Southern slopes of the Poconos around the town of Jim Thorpe, PA. The dates are from Friday, October 11 to Wednesday, October 16, 2019.

The workshop will be taught by David Beale, popular watercolor instructor and owner of the Picture House.  See David’s work at davidbealeart.com
David has taught workshops across the United States and abroad throughout Ireland, on Lake Como in Italy and in Barcelona, Spain. 
For details, see Painting Autumn in the Poconos.

https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Against-the-Wall-wpcf_300x239.jpgAgainst the Wall
oil on canvas
24 x 30 inches, 2017

Featured Artist

My aim as a painter is to bring to life a slice of the world as I experience it. Light, color and form are my vocabulary.


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