Getting to ‘must’


Dear Artist,

Psychologist Abraham Maslow has written, “A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write — if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What one can be, one must be.” The question for many would-be creators is simply how to get to “must.”


Abraham Maslow

Maslow spent a lifetime researching mental health and human potential. He emphasized the study of healthy minds and successful systems rather than the abnormal and the ill. He was particularly interested in the hierarchy of needs, meta-needs, self-actualizing persons, purposeful play, and peak experiences. Leader of the humanistic school of psychology, he referred to his ideas as a “third force” — beyond Freudian theory and behaviourism.

Maslow saw human beings’ needs arranged like a ladder. The most basic needs, at the bottom, were physical — air, water, food, etc. Then came safety needs–security, stability, comfort. Then psychological or social needs — belonging, love, acceptance. At the top were the self-actualizing needs — the need to fulfill oneself, to become all that one is capable of becoming. Maslow felt that unfulfilled needs lower on the ladder inhibited a person from climbing to the next step. For example, someone dying of thirst is not likely to write or paint. People who managed the higher needs are what he called self-actualizing people. These folks, he found, are able to focus on problems outside themselves, have a clear sense of what is true and what is phony, and are spontaneous, creative, and not bound too strictly by social conventions.

Here are a few of Maslow’s ideas for artists wishing to further evolve:

Systematically study, understand and neutralize the effects of lower needs. Accept the world in all of its complexity, mystery and ambiguity. Take cues from the winners in this world, not the losers. Keep the company of the doers, not the talkers. Play your personal game on as many levels as you’re able. Fall in love with your processes, innovations, dreams and higher ideals. Be sensitive to and welcome the arrival of peak experiences. Have no guilt when you see yourself becoming compulsive and proactive. Allow yourself to be swept up in your personal “must.”


“Hierarchy of Needs
by Abraham Maslow

Best regards,


PS: “Where was the human potential lost? How was it crippled? A good question might be not why do people create, but why do people not create?” (Abraham Maslow, 1908-1970)

Esoterica: Peak experiences are profound moments of love, understanding, happiness or rapture, when a person feels more whole, alive, self-sufficient and yet a part of the world — more aware of truth, justice, harmony and goodness. Maslow found self-actualizing people have many such peak experiences. Acts of art can be structured so an individual sets himself up for a series of them. He feels good, becomes habituated and demands their repetition. Maslow was not a snob about his conclusions. “A first-rate soup,” he said, “is more creative than a second-rate painting.”


Michelangelo of our times
by K. Patrick/J. Catanzaro

We live in an incredible time. What Maslow believed and taught becomes more prevalent every day in the public domain… not just the artistic ones. More and more people search to reach their highest potentials in their inner self, as well as their relationships with the outer self. In so doing they become the Michelangelo of their lives… they are the work.


Married to the source
by Carl Sorensen

We may plant a garden or build a house or create a meal or nurse a newborn that it might create some more stuff for our enjoyment or displeasure, or we might be disposed to creatively rape the earth for its valuable ore and create out of the product weapons designed to stop the creativity of others or make machines to transport us to our centers of creativity. We are replete with options on how to exercise the power that comes from this invisible source we are invested with that governs our actions. It is Infinite but it is all there for us to utilize for better or worse. We are married to the creative SOURCE! Till death do we part. Let’s all try to CREATE a beautiful world.


Personal Construct Theory
by Joe Whitehurst

I spent 10 years in two different doctoral psychology programs and know quite a bit about Maslow. I would like to introduce you and your readers to another set of ideas altogether different from Maslow. This comprehensive approach completely eschews concepts like needs, drives, cognition, emotion, stimuli and responses. During my 10 years in graduate school, I was confronted by/reviewed all the major approaches to theories of psychological functioning: psychoanalytic (Freud, Jung, Horney, Sullivan, Adler, etc), behaviorism (Skinner, Verplanck, Maslow), Psychosocial (Rotter, Erickson) and many others. I concluded that Personal Construct Theory encompasses all psychological phenomena and can be explained by a single fundamental postulate and eleven corollaries.

(RG note) Thanks, Joe. Joe’s letter proceeded through seventeen pages of scholarly Personal Construct Theory as applied in Buddhist thinking. His letter wins the prize by being the longest response we have ever received. I put my brush down and read the whole thing. It was a new perspective (for me) and is worth thinking about for a possible future Twice-Weekly letter. I’m sure Joe will forward you a copy of what he sent me if you ask.


I paint therefore I am
by Karl Leitzel, Spring Mills, PA, USA


“Streambank Willow, Morning Light”
oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches
by Karl Leitzel

Cogito, ergo sum,” or “I think, therefore I am,” said Descartes. I recently made a sign for the side of my pickup truck that reads, “I paint, therefore I am.” For me, as an artist (or, as Maslow puts it, a self-actualizing person), the act of creating is as much at the core of my being as the act of thinking. In the Judeo-Christian view of human existence, we are made in the image of God, though imperfectly. That “image of God” concept has nothing to do with physical appearance, and everything to do with the ability to think, to love, and to create. As I considered this as a philosophical creed, I realized that it had just as much meaning to me, perhaps on a slightly more everyday plane, if the order of the statement were reversed. So, on the other side of my truck, the sign reads, “I am, therefore I paint.” What else would I do?


Artist complex
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA


“Evening at Rock Creek”
oil on canvas, 12 x 12 inches
by Cathie Harrison

WOW, a new understanding of “an artist must paint”! This statement has haunted me for years. It has at times made me almost accept that I must not be a “real painter” since periods of times would pass when I did not paint and occasionally periods of time would pass when I did not want to paint. During these times a voice in my head would say, “See, you’re not a real artist because if you were you would paint even though you are exhausted from a full time job and parenting two children (one of whom has a significant disability). Or you would paint even though your heart is broken and you can hardly get out of bed. Or you would paint, even though the money is very tight and art materials are not budgeted. Or you would paint, even though you have to clean it all up and put it away in an hour so the room can turn back into the dining room.” I neglected to consider the whole statement,” If you are to be ultimately at peace with yourself…” This is the meat of it. This is the criteria that brings me to MUST paint. I am transformed in the most positive ways when I am able to paint. When I have, as I have lately, those peak experiences, “All is right with the world!” When I am on a painting trip and phone home, my loved ones remark how my voice reflects my contentment. Yes, I too MUST paint. I just could not ignore the lower rungs of the ladder and paint.


‘Must’ when bipolar
by Betty Leduc, Mission BC, Canada


original portrait
by Betty Leduc

I am bipolar. I can measure my depressed states by how I perform in my studio. When I reach the stage where I can no longer draw or sculpt, I know I am near the bottom. It is useless to even go into my studio, no matter how strong the desire is to work. People in my condition just have to continue to go into their studios at intervals and try, and within ten minutes one knows if one is ready or not. This process can take days or weeks or at times, unfortunately, years. Luckily it is usually not an excessive amount of time, but at one time it was five years and I despaired of ever working again. I want to encourage anyone in my position. Do not give up. Try every so often and one day it comes back. When it comes back, all your techniques come back quickly. We all have to live with what we are. The important thing is to play the cards you were dealt. Use them to your advantage. When I see something that I think would be good later on, I take a photo or maybe ten of it to use in the future when I can work again. I keep them in a reference file.


Maslow not for everyone
by Murray Echols, Birmingham, UK

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and self-actualization concepts have been favorites of mine for years. However, the hierarchy of needs probably applies only to some people — not to all. Maslow once wrote that an example of a self-actualizing person was a husband whose wife comes home and excitedly says, “I ran into my ex-fiancé, Jim, who is in town for a week and wants to take me to dinner and dancing tonight.” Her self-actualizing husband says, “That is great. You will have to tell me all about it when you get home.” Happy for her that she was going to do something she would enjoy. Maslow then wrote that in all his years he had only known five people who were self-actualizing.

(RG note) Thanks, Murray. Commendable as this generosity of spirit may be, it’s not my understanding of what Maslow had in mind. As I read him, self-actualization includes the learned ability to be pro-active and creatively clear without antisocial or anti-personal consequences, and is the accomplishment, in degree at least, of many thousands.


Starving artists needed
by Rosally Saltsman, Petach Tikva, Israel


“A Portion of Kindness”
by Rosally Saltsman

Anyone who has taken psychology 101 has heard of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, also referred to as Maslow’s pyramid because it is usually depicted as such. Dr. Maslow identified the universal needs of every human being and classified them going from most basic to highest. His claim was that a person would not be able to realize his true potential and attend to his higher needs unless his lower needs were met. For example, someone who is on the brink of starvation will not worry about getting his doctorate (unless trying to get his doctorate is the cause of his starvation). Dr. Maslow’s model is easy to disprove. Much of the world’s art and literature has come from people starving in garrets and living hand to mouth under leaky roofs. Need proof? Just go have a look at a Van Gogh or listen to Mozart. We wouldn’t have much of our art and music if it weren’t for starving writers and musicians living in angst and poverty.


Peak experiences in later life
by Ginny Stiles, Leesburg, FL, USA


“Field of Dreams”
acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Ginny Stiles

It’s never too late for expressing those peak moments in life. I work in watercolor and acrylics and came to art late in life… searching for that top of ladder experience in a time of my life when the basic needs have been met. I think that is why so many people find creative art in retirement. The basic needs have been met. We have raised our children, exhausted ourselves trying to make those things like security become less a part of the world. Suddenly a huge opening appears. Time to write the poetry, become gourmet cooks, grow perfect roses, or, in my case, paint my heart out. I applaud career creativity… those who have fought their way to the top of the ladder while still having to meet all those every day needs! But now I applaud too those who in retirement have allowed ourselves to “fall in love with our personal must.” Those of us who add our personal life experiences to the joy of creativity have in many ways a different kind of gift. We have hung on to the ladder a long time and now we have found it is never too late to keep climbing.


You are what you must do
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA


“Shadow Play”
oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

For me, it’s not a matter of “getting to must.” I believe it’s a matter of getting to “be.” We either must — or not. One who must IS that, and simply must — no “getting” to it, it just is. I believe there are those of us who either make or die — whether the dying is a real physical death or a gradual withering within. I know if I don’t paint or carve or write or make some kind of creative movement within a short amount of time, I start to go a little nutso — and (as you know) there are scores of others like that, as well. Fortunately I have good friends who recognize when I have stayed away from the making for too long a time and gently escort me to my studio, open the door and bid me good day. When the “must” of our beings is crushed by “shoulds,” “you can’ts,” and “you better nots,” sometimes the strength to buck the opposition just isn’t there. But I think that those who do have the internal fortitude to meet fear with determination, to make bold, outrageous demands of their creativity, and who have enormous, unshakable faith in self and the magic of the universe, seem to grow an extra capacity for the courage to create and the subsequent continuance of same. They are truly the ones who must. And do.


Drug of choice
by Graham Smith, Wongamine, Australia


“Start of a Long Night”
oil on canvas, 30 x 40 inches
by Graham Smith

I agree that the central question for an artist is how to get to “must.” In my case it amounted to being willing to make some sacrifices, mainly financial, and to rid myself of the guilt surrounding a way of life seen by many to be simply selfish. Having got to “must,” everything else falls into place. Decisions about priorities become so much easier when placed against a “must” background. If an activity is going to take 6 hours, what proportion of a painting could I have completed in that time? This is the real cost of the activity. And this thinking now encourages me to do the “other” stuff outside my working (or playing) hours. I have a set time to start in the morning and if the jobs aren’t done by then, they can wait for another day, or until I have finished for the day. And so with expenditure. How does it further the action? If it doesn’t, then it is no longer essential. All of a sudden the old pressures seem to fall away and the benefits of them pale into insignificance alongside the delights of dancing with the creative muse. And as Dr Phil says, “You teach people how to treat you.” I spent many years in a depressed non-functional fug, trying to cater to what I saw as other people’s expectations (and my own too). With some help I came to see that I was just as entitled to a creative and rewarding life as anyone else. Now I can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning and get going. Staying in touch with this “must” centre creates self-motivation, enthusiasm, courage, delight and a feeling of indestructible self-worth. For an artist, as a drug of choice, it is a must.


Providing pieces to the puzzle
by Carol Lavoie, USA

You, indeed, are being utilized by the Universal energy so perfectly! So many of your letters arrive in my mailbox EXACTLY WHEN I AM IN THE GREATEST NEED TO HEAR YOUR WORDS as confirmation and inspiration to me! (and I am sure to others as well). It is just always so intriguing to see how we all fit into the universal life ‘puzzle’ providing missing pieces to even those who we do not know personally, and yet are able to be the instrument through which we convey a most important message. Just never know how we, our lives, feelings, words, deeds, will affect others.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Getting to ‘must’



From: Brad Greek — Nov 27, 2007

I see this ladder as two worlds. The bottom two rungs are the world that today’s society expects from us. The world of being responsible, providing, etc…, The top two rungs are where we artists live. This is where we are at peace with ourselves and the world around us. This is where our heart is, our soul. The middle rung is what brings us to change worlds. Usually pulling us back down.

From: Tracy Wall — Nov 27, 2007

I’m not sure about Maslow’s pyramid for everyone, but I do know I am happier when I create. At this point in my art career, I think about creating, painting, solving art problems all the time. When I don’t paint for a few days, I’m cranky and irritable. It’s like I’m angry with myself for missing time and opportunity. When I do, I’m much more pleasant to be around!

From: Ted Clemens — Nov 27, 2007

I completely agree with the observation that “…an artist must paint…”. Whatever our talents and desires, it’s part of each of us to pursue them. But having seen the pyramid, I believe Mr Maslow has made things much too esoteric and complicated. And there are holes. For instance, on that bottom rung… BREATHING is good. So are FOOD and WATER. SLEEP and EXCRETION are givens. The other two are coffeehouse discussion. But he missed an essential down there. Anyone trained in survival knows that when stranded or lost, SHELTER is the most important consideration. I would also debate putting LOVE (the unconditional variety as oppose to romantic or fraternal) in that bottom rung. And that’s not even on his list.

From: Kelly McCurdy — Nov 27, 2007

After reading all the comments on Maslow, I am driven to think. I, too, am a mental health professional and have studied all the “greats”. But it begs a question: what about the creativity of Solzhenitzyn in the gulags, or Frankel in the camps, or Anne Frank among many others) in captivity and without many basic needs met? Sometimes need drives the soul to create a universe that is beautiful and hopeful. My thoughts: “To quiet my mind, I paint. To quiet my mind I write. To keep it inside would eat me alive. To quiet my mind, I paint.” Kelly McCurdy

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 27, 2007

Reading the comments on Maslow and his theory I noticed that most comments refer to doing as the criteria to call yourself an artist. I’d like to state that there is an opposite equally important element. That is NOT doing. This, to me is as important as DOING. I once felt as others that if I were not painting every day, I was not an artist. For many years I did this with mixed results. The results of this “doggedness” helped me create a good work ethic that is still with me today. The other result was periods of frustration and misery forcing inferior work. After many years and with gained wisdom I realized that there has to be times of rejuvenation. Times to let the mind and body relax. Times to step away from the process to regenerate the system. I used to force myself into the studio even though mentally I wasn’t ready or willing to paint. I did this for years believing the theory that “to be is to do.” I was wrong. At least for me this is. I’ve spoken about the yin and yang of life but didn’t apply this to my emotional well-being. Now I realize that there needs to be “down time” from the doing to think about what to do. Or do nothing at all. This is as valuable as doing. This is the reason I left the commercial art field. Pressure to produce at will. If I’m not working on a piece I don’t stress myself out worrying that I’m not painting today. I’ve come to realize that art cannot be forced. Instead of trying to paint, read an art book or any book unrelated to art. Go to a show or museum. Have coffee or tea with friends (artists or not). Creativity is a blessing that needs nurturing and may mean stepping away for a period to take stock. One need not strap themselves to their easels to call themselves artists. One need only to produce when the need reaches that point where you know the juices are flowing. It’s being in touch and comfortable with your self and listening and trusting your inner voices.

From: Nancy Wylie — Nov 27, 2007

Thanks Rick for your comments! I have been there too and have found that I used to beat myself up for not being in my studio when I really needed to just get caught up on the things in life you have to do. The burning desire to paint is always there, but I have found that if I let the other things in daily life go, I am not doing myself any favors by making myself paint. I am one that has to have everything cleaned up and all the clutter of life taken care of first so I can be free to go to my studio, get into my right brain and not worry about time (left brain), phone calls to make, projects to do, etc. All that said, I still need to fight for some sort of discipline to get to my studio to work, otherwise I would always find an excuse to procrastinate or find some other avoidance technique to keep me from painting. I think it is all a bit of balance in needs and musts. I have found too if I do at least one “art ” thing everyday such as reading an art magizine, go to an art show, do anything realted to the business side of my art, or just getting together with friends (which I can easily neglect and then feel guilty for that!), I don’t feel I have wasted my time by not painting. When I really need to paint, it always happens and I am in the groove in no time.

From: Esther J. Williams — Nov 27, 2007

If you take Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs and compare it to Van Gogh’s life, it solves the answer to his suicide. Van Gogh was missing the 2 middle areas, Love-Belonging and Self Esteem. After I read the book Lust for Life, a story about Van Gogh, it was very apparent that this brilliant artist was compulsive to paint, but failed to satisfy his need to love, be loved and feel acceptance in his world. Yes, maybe Van Gogh was a schizophrenic and that sealed his fatal end. But I do feel Maslow has a major point here in the fact that one must balance their needs to attain that high point of feeling on top of the world in mind, body and spirit. Van Gogh had a beautiful spirit, he felt for the poor, the common hard workers in the fields and factories, the sick and even prostitutes. But his mind was unbalanced with the agony of not finding true love in his life and not being accepted by people around him and the art world. He was a genius in painting, it was a drive that was compulsive and he had the financial support from his family to keep at it. He did not make it to the top in self-actualization. We have placed him on top of the artist’s who’s-who ladder after he died because of his brilliance in art. Only the bottom and second rung of the pyramid were satisfied in his life. His insanity came when he ignored the next two needs and those are dearly needed by us all. Incredible talent does not make one self-actualized. Balancing one’s life among giving love to others and receiving it is an enormous sense of joy. Loving yourself for who you are and accepting that you are an amazing creative artist is another key to fulfillment in life, that is part of the whole picture of YOU. No matter what endeavor you pursue in life, it is especially important to balance your needs with the needs of your loved ones, not gloss over them. Van Gogh sorely missed this and it darkened his mind to the point of no return. Art is almost the perfect therapy, but it is not everything one needs to have a balanced mind.

From: Walter Hawn — Nov 27, 2007

Much as I understand the wish to bring in the bucks (I was a broadcaster for many years) through presenting advertising messages, it was still disconcerting to me to read through the comments above, and then collide at the bottom with the headline, in a style far out of keeping with the rest of the page, “Specials at Circuit City.” It was a head-banger, fer shur.

From: Valerie Norberry — Nov 28, 2007

All I know is that by hitting the triple loader once a month and by having 30 pairs of underwear (which one can go for 60 days without doing laundry if one practices ancient camp trick of wearing them inside out on 2nd day), and by doing dishes once a week (sign, I AM the dishwasher), those lower needs can take a back seat to some of those higher rungs on the ladder. Now, where did I put my brush?







Rush Hour

watercolour painting
by Teyjah Mcaren, BC, Canada


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 Chris Boardman who wrote, “Regarding Maslow’s point of view: Perhaps the explosion of user-generated content on the web is a key to a more enlightened world? The more everyone creates, the less concerned we will be regarding the lower rungs of the ladder?”

And also Tai Ward-Holmes of New Zealand who wrote, “How crazy to jump from concept to execution and not fear the solutions that are unseen, when my eyes only see completion and know the result will be there, waiting for me to arrive. Visions, are they my soul, my soul–ution. Time to paint, in time to sleep patient by my side, waiting in the shadows making soul food for the mind. Visions, I can hear them arrive.”

And also Orythia Johnston of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “As an artist and art therapist, your message is like my goal(s), not always easy; a path that leads towards mountains that have to be climbed and valleys that have to be explored and enjoyed. A journey of the heart, soul, mind and body.”

And also Vita of Sutton, QC, Canada who wrote, “The potential was never lost. It has been suppressed by the corporate agenda that has deprived humanity to be appreciated for their individual vision.”

And also Johanne Racine of St-Prosper, QC, Canada who wrote, “We need to create and invent in order to excel. It is human—the need to create is under the skin. Also, it’s an escape from the busy lives we carry. And it’s very rewarding. Remove the establishment and it is dull, flat, routine, it is depressing. So go make your creativity, all the world, young and old, for our earthly happiness.”

And also Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki of Port Moody, BC, Canada who wrote, “I disagree with encouraging compulsion. Balanced is the healthy joy of life while compulsion is a dangerous rollercoaster of ecstasy and despair which some people may be able to harness, but too many get crushed by it.”

And also Ann Blackburn who wrote, “Art is a priesthood, and not practicing is robbing ourselves of the sacred calling of our souls.”




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