Voluntary mutism


Dear Artist,

You may be aware of a condition called “Selective Mutism.” This is where children are afraid or unable to speak out. Shy and silent at school, they are often normal at home or with others they know and trust. It’s a rare condition related to social anxiety that sometimes carries over into adulthood. Sufferers are often creative and artistic.

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between the use of words and the private world of hands-on creativity. A lot of us have found that too much talk kills projects and neutralizes the need to accomplish. It seems that monks and nuns who have taken vows of silence have clearer concentration and the facility for steady work or study. While talk can stimulate and even motivate, it can also take a toll. I sometimes run into folks who talk about art so much — and everything else as well — that I know there will never be much of a place for art in their lives. My alarm sounds the loudest when they talk brilliantly about the art they’re going to do.

Is it possible, I ask myself, that by simply blocking the mouth, expression might be more likely to come out of the hands? Is it possible that some would-be artists are just talking too much?

Here’s an exercise that certain artists will find golden. It’s called “Voluntary Mutism.” Choose a four-hour period. Permit no human intercourse — unplug the phone and snuff the email. Put a sign on the door. Arrange for a terminal event such as an alarm or a timely shout from a true friend. With soft or ambient music only, let yourself loose in a space of verbal deprivation. This goes for self-talk, too — and it takes a bit of practice. There can be no mouthing, aloud or silent, of personal plights or anxieties. You can do this by concentrating on good nouns like “umber” and “filbert.” It’s amazing how many nouns you can find just lying around the studio, ready to be picked up and flicked about. Just concentrate for four little hours on the business of making stuff. It’s not like you’re going into solitary for twenty years. If you must speak, do it with your animal. Try to use nouns like “rough” and “bark.” It’s better that way, and the animal understands how you’re trying to improve. She’s really a mute too. That may be why she’s so highly evolved.

Best regards,


PS: “The stronger and more intense my desire becomes to capture and record that which is unsayable, the more tightly my mouth stays shut.” (Max Beckmann) “Be as one that knoweth and yet holdeth his tongue.” (Ecclesiasticus) “Create, artist, do not talk.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe)

Esoterica: Art teachers who would also be artists have unique challenges. Coming down after a day of words may take a decompression chamber. For some, a meal, a change of clothes, or a blast of loud music does the trick. For others, a darkened room with a concentrated Zen-like mantra may be necessary. Some art instructors find a daily transition to the worker mode almost impossible and must wait for holidays or sabbaticals. Others are stimulated by the interaction in classes and are able to take added joy to their private process.


Memorable ideas take time to form
by Carol Jessen, St. Louis, MO, USA


“Ram Island Light”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
by Carol Jessen

I taught literature for thirty years, and know the importance of good words, meaningful phrases, and studied reflections. But too many times energy is taken from us by talking before we think, never taking the time to contemplate things, and then never doing anything to act upon our words. Words spew out in an oral version of MTV images. Memorable ideas take time to formulate… in poetry or paintings.


Words replace reality
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel


“Hillside Grove”
oil painting, 29 x 46 inches
by Ron Gang

“He who knows does not speak. He who speaks does not know.” (Lao Tzu) Words are a replacement for the reality. The experience of reality is raw and immediate, unmitigated by words. Art is a language that can transcend words, and possibly convey some of the non-verbal consciousness of the artist to the viewer. This depends on the states of the viewer and the artist. As our non-verbal awareness deepens, it seems to me that it is reflected in our life and art. Have I already spoken too much?


Evaporates with each word spoken
by Carl Erickson, Stillwater, MN, USA


“Candy jar”
porcelain pottery
by Carl Erickson

I’ve found the best way to keep an idea from germinating is to talk about it with another person. I don’t know if it’s because I inevitably start feeling defensive or if it’s because I start to feel a need to rationalize it or if it suddenly starts sounding petty, stupid, lame — maybe it’s all of the above. More often it just feels like some of that mysterious energy “ju-ju” just sort of evaporates with each word spoken. The project has finally been done in conversation and no longer needs to be done in fact. Too much said already.


Contemplation is the root
by Sandra Chantry

I regularly went into retreat in order to regroup and refresh my vision. Whilst in retreat I frequently found myself creating images that I have never been able to produce in my ordinary daily life. I put this down to a heightened form of awareness brought about by the silence that surrounded me and the change in my brain patterns as my brain moved from its regular ‘Alpha’ to ‘Beta’ patterns.

Deep awareness begins in the ‘Alpha’ wave range that we can consciously cultivate with slow respiration, deep relaxation and silence. It’s in this non-verbal state that we look deeply with concentration and true insight is possible. In this state the distinction between the observer and the observed blurs, we find harmony within, pace follows and the ability to see things differently. Contemplation is the root of awareness and creativity.


Just too busy
by Pat Weekley, New Mexico, USA

You must be kidding… a four-hour period in total isolation from the outside world? I am lucky to steal a few evenings or part of an afternoon to do my art. Even so I have to keep an ear pealed for the phone. I have to answer the door, stir the stew, switch the laundry. And I still manage to do my art. I think the walls would close in on me and I’d be lost if I followed your advice.


Words are needed
by D. A. Jelke, The Netherlands


home studio

If a poet doesn’t explain his work nobody will understand what he means. If Johann Wolfgang von Goethe did not talk with his pen we would not know who he was, and did you not know that van Beethoven became deaf and created his most beautiful song? A blind architect can tell others his vision and every artist must express verbally his feelings and visions. My paintings are very expensive and not only through my painting technique but also through my attitude, the same as I had when I was a businessman, yacht-broker and believe me I am a wealthy man. Or is it better I die poor like Vincent van Gogh, also a great artist, what do you think?


The balanced life
by Helen Howes, Norfolk, UK


“Joyce’s Geese”
quilted cotton fabrics
by Helen Howes

I work in my workshop, on my own. On some days, I see no-one for eight hours and just get on with what I do. I do have a telephone, but it may not ring. So, I need to interact sometimes with people, and I have made peer groups, and one day a fortnight, I teach. These are essential for my mental wellbeing, but they can scatter the creative drive badly if allowed. There has to be a balance, but I can’t live without Radio 4 (UK talk radio station). At the start/end of the year, I spend a week or so cleaning up and rearranging the studio. At the end of this I know exactly what materials I have, the surfaces are all ready to roll, and I have a burst of creativity which may last for 3 months. Then I hold my Spring Exhibition. “Those who dance are often thought mad by those who cannot hear the music.” (Tao Te Ching)


The art of living
by Jan Morrison, Halifax, NS, Canada

I practice Voluntary Mutism most every day in my Buddhist meditation practice. It is hard for me not to talk about my art because I am a big talker and my art is writing stories — I practice by talking to people — and I find it very helpful to shut up about everything for a period of every day. I don’t do it for four hours though unless I am on a specific retreat. How does it affect art? All who meditate and are artists could respond to this — I know a lot of artists who are also meditators. It is a most helpful practice for their lives. And that is because a meditator of any sort — Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, Pantheist etc., learns to still her mind and the critical voice that ruins many a budding artist. When I don’t practice I start to believe in things like writer’s block or I despair that others are better than I and that I should just stop. My art is the way I make sense of my world and as such is a bodhisattva action — of benefit to all beings. I don’t take myself so seriously. I know that art is play — joyful manipulation of the elements — a striving towards grace. Whether I am making a meal, bathing a baby or writing a play I can wake-up and enjoy myself. And that is the art of living!


“In the zone”
by Mark A. Brennan, Whitehill, NS, Canada


oil on paper, 19 x 23 inches
by Mark A. Brennan

I ‘bumped’ into Buddhism a few years ago, and although not a practicing Buddhist I have come to truly appreciate having some control over a wandering mind, to stay in the present when working at my art. For me this silence is like a form of meditation, private thought and concentration. My mind tends to clear of all distraction and only then can I unlock the creative inside of me. When in this mindset I seem to be at my most creative, my work appears looser, more free and tells a story of a person without artistic inhibition. When others are around I tighten up, use smaller brushes, smaller strokes and less paint. I think ‘blocking the mouth’ is actually freeing the mind. If we can learn the discipline of keeping clutter from the mind, to really be able to focus and stay present, there is no limit to our potential, for all things appear perfect. Long distance runners call this ‘being in the zone.’


Makes time for both
by Lori Simons, Merrimack, NH, USA


“Crescent Beach”
oil painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Lori Simons

I’ve had to segregate my painting days from my social days. A year ago, I almost completely stopped seeing my friends in order to produce art. I became increasingly frustrated — feeling like I was trapped by my artwork. I do also cherish time alone to think, ponder and paint, but it seems that I can’t live without either one. I like your idea of voluntary mutism — it separates the quiet time from the verbal — a very good idea so that one activity doesn’t eat up the other.

I also cherish my friendships and have an ongoing struggle between art production and relationship growth. Recently, after pondering much about how to fashion my time and life, I discovered that I will never be an artist that produces dozens or hundreds of paintings each year. I am not cut out for that. However, I am certainly cut out to work on 5 to 10 long-term pieces a year where I do studies and planning and then finally execute the painting. Because my “need to be with people” personality gets in the way, I’ve had to make time for both.


Attractive studio attracts people
by Corrie Scott, Hastings, Christ Church, Barbados


“Pineapple with Cigar”
acrylic on canvas
by Corrie Scott

I am a full time artist and have to earn the ‘pennies’ too. So making time, solitary time, quiet time is very important to me. Not only do I switch off the ringer on the telephone, the beep and volume of the answering machine, my computer and shut my studio door, I put a chair with a big sign at the entrance of my verandah saying, “Please do not disturb. I am painting. This includes You my friends. Thank you,” My verandah used to have 5 entrances. I have planted it up with tropical trees and cacti so that there is only one entrance, and I can see you coming if my door is open. I have to do this as my studio is very calm and attractive, and many people come just to absorb these qualities, and then stay for hours. This is fine at times. But when I am working, I bare my fangs to anyone who disturbs me.


‘Umber, umber, umber’
by Herbert Pryke

Two days ago, I sought the help of a spiritual counselor to begin the discipline of meditation. He spoke about how meditation through practice will help ‘clean out’ distracting thoughts and ideas while collecting one’s knowledge. My need to be focused is paramount as I look around the studio and review my latest artworks for an upcoming show next month. ‘Scattered’ is the word that first comes to mind. My process to creative thought often takes time to initiate. Once the movement starts, I get absorbed for hours. My goal is to train myself to reach that plateau with focus through meditation. Applying your idea of ‘voluntary mutism’ may very well be the key to my objective. “Umber” kind of sounds like “ohm” don’t you think?


Pattern of thought with challenged son
by Janet Vanderhoof

I have a child with Down’s Syndrome and he talks in very simple sentences, if any. Most of the time we talk in symbols. In order to communicate without frustration, I have to have no expectations and not try hard to understand. There is a certain brain wave that I function under when I am around my son. It is almost as if I am in a dream and become very contemplative. It is such a different state, that when I get around other people I have to change my pattern. My son allows my brain to be very open and become very intuitive and creative. We all talk way too much and don’t listen. We are so concerned with others hearing us that we fail to really be present to the moment.


20 years of social anxiety
by Renee Askew, Todd, NC, USA


“Graffiti I”
mixed media, 30 x 30 inches
by Renee Askew

I can’t tell you how very important your letter on Selective Mutism is to me. I am 41 years old, an artist, and for over 20 years have had social anxiety. What I did not know, was that it was common among creative people. What a relief! In the past couple of months especially, I have struggled in non-Art classes where verbal participation was required. Mostly I sit there hoping to be invisible waiting for the class to end. But just last week, I got out some colored pencils and started to draw while taking notes. It didn’t help with speaking, but did provide some comfort. For all these years I have seen the anxiety and inability to speak as a terrible character flaw. I have responded in these situations with “that is why I paint because there aren’t always words”. I used that as an excuse rather than a truth — but maybe, it is truth.


At peace again
by Kerrie Warren, Crossover, Australia


“She Came in Many Forms”
acrylic on canvas
by Kerrie Warren

I was one of those children! What made it worse was that I went to 16 different schools and struggled with the whole social aspect. I hid in the library at lunchtimes because I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I was always sick for physical education and hated working in teams. I was an A grade student within this who just wanted to be at home. I wrote reams of poetry throughout this entire period — also kept writing for a few years at my first job (in the toilet) and it helped me feel in control again. It put everything right and helped to earth me. Poetry became sculpture, which became paint! I live a very social life now and this can really de-energize me! I go bush-walking with my dogs nearly every day and the trees make me feel at peace again.



Chooses people carefully
by Denise C. Carkeek, Red Beach, New Zealand

I too was one of these children, though I only heard of Selective Mutism a couple of years ago. It is something I still struggle with at times, though to a much lesser degree. It also led to me feeling as anxious about sharing visual or written work, as much as conversation. I still drew, painted — even achieved a reasonable grade for art when I finished school. But the art I shared was tailored to what teachers or others wanted. Other work, created for myself, stayed hidden. It was so much a part of me that I could not cope with having it judged. I am now 32 and am finally getting over my anxiety about sharing my work. I find being able to talk to someone about a work or idea to be extremely beneficial at times. But I choose those people carefully.


Son with Selective Mutism
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA


by Ross Jones

The profile of Selective Mutism fits our son to a tee (bilingualism, tactile sensitivity, not speaking in public or at school, sensitivity to noise when he was younger, intelligent, artistic, etc.). For years, his lack of speaking in school and his not speaking around strangers has been an issue. It has at times been a debilitating silence. Can you image the frustration of teachers and parents when a child won’t speak up in class? I didn’t understand it until now because of your letter. He is now a freshman in college and is doing well, though still quiet (not silent) but I look back at what we did and didn’t do and see myself in the pages I read about Selective Mutism. I remember when he was just learning to talk and his saying, “mama do it” when I would want him to ask for something. I remember the bribes to get him to speak in public from asking for an ice cream to getting “happy meals.” He has learned over the years to speak out more, especially as an older teen, by letting him do shopping for items in stores and his having to do the dreaded oral reports in school but it has been a very long process.

Though still shy, his art has often been the bridge to speaking to people. Even this last semester he became good friends with a student because of a drawing he did in his graphic communications class. Hopefully your letter will allow parents to seek out help for their children when they are young and avoid some of the tremendous frustrations of their child’s public silence.

(RG note) Information on Selective Mutism can be found at an excellent website: Selective Mutism and Childhood Anxiety Disorders. I particularly found the pages on adults valuable. Thank you to the many artists who wrote to report experiences with selective mutism.


Transitioning problems for teacher-artist
by Janet Sellers, Monument, CO, USA


“Laguna Main Beach”
acrylic painting, 11 x 14 inches
by Janet Sellers

I teach private students in my working studio and find that is the only time I can use words and not have a problem with making art, too. Perhaps I am used to teaching and creating after a couple of decades, but for many years, it was difficult to adjust being able to create and teach on the same day. I had to develop a facility to do both. Even though my studio is on a separate floor of my home, my problem now lies in returning to my family after class or working in the studio. That social context change has been very tricky. I do need to decompress, or shut down some part of me that is quite open in the creative process. My family loves me in this wide-open mode, but it takes a toll on me personally. I think it is because the flow is so open, and without the direction of the art to catch it, it dissipates, which is somehow difficult to bear. The creative flow is mysterious and wonderful, but it takes a developed self to get back to the mundane. Dinner and dishes, after all, are mundane. My studio dog, Max, is quiet, is good about retrieving my dropped pencils and such (would that he could bring a clean water bucket, too) in the studio, but he excels at going from studio dog to eating his doggie dinner after “work.”


Limits increase creativity
by Cathy Hasty

I took a painting workshop called The Potential Program with Kim Stimpson in Charlotte, NC, that reinforced your point. Several times she said, “Limits increase creativity.” She encouraged us to voluntarily limit ourselves in terms of large brushes, or small brushes, or using paints we don’t usually use or limiting ourselves concerning content. Over the past few weeks I have come back to the importance of limits in other areas of my life. When I set limits on my children, such as a shorter amount of TV, they are more creative. When I set limits on my computer time, I have more time for art. When I set limits on the demands of others, I have more energy for what I love. When I set limits on spending money on supplies, I paint more with what I already have. Thanks for helping me say less and produce more.


Method for getting students to talk
by Stan Horner

Teachers do need to talk, to start out an event as a ‘speaking subject,’ (which of course makes students into ‘spoken subjects’), but if they are to be successful, in my opinion, they must find a way to shift gears and turn the tables so that the students become speaking subjects. That way they can silence the one-way-street syndrome. One way to do this is ask a question — and it’s better still if the teacher can ask one that touches every student’s motivation, and better still again if the teacher is also looking for an answer. I’ve developed a response sequence that’s along the lines of your letter. It invites that pre-verbal trance by looking into an image as an event.

(RG note) Stan’s system is on his website. Click on Inner Imaging.


Can’t speak and paint
by Gene Black, Anniston, AL, USA

When I paint, I cannot carry on a conversation. One of two things happens: the creativity stops and I go nowhere with the painting until the conversation ends or, I continue to paint and make poor verbal responses. I discovered this phenomenon while doing an outdoor festival where artists and craftsmen are highly encouraged to demonstrate. As long as I was painting things were fine, but as soon as someone started talking to me the painting deteriorated (as I refocused onto the client, since I was there to sell). I find that “too much verbal stimulation” causes my work to suffer.


Talk exceeds demand
by Lyn L’Ecuyer, Tatla Lake, BC, Canada

Next time you’re at a social event, just watch everyone. Take the time to quiet yourself and observe your surroundings. It’s a great way to learn about how people interact with each other and it will give you a greater understanding of your fellow human beings. Not only that, other people who really do have profound, interesting things to say, will be attracted to quiet, melancholy people. This makes for the most interesting deep conversations. No superficiality, how refreshing. Something to think about: The thought for the day in our community paper is, ‘Talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand.’


Verbal later in the day
by Paul Schleitwiler, La Grange, IL, USA

From the time I awake in the morning until about 3 to 5 hours later, I am not verbal. I am aware of my surroundings and visually awake, but I don’t think in words. This condition has existed since I was a toddler. If someone speaks to me, slowly, with stress on nouns and verbs, I might understand somewhat. I do my best artwork at this time. By late evening, I am more verbal than visual. I do my best writing and dialogue with others then — and also the most puns, which is why my wife likes to go to bed earlier. In the morning, she can talk all she wants, without interruption. At night, she’s asleep. We really communicate in the middle of the day.


She loves it
by Vanessa Solis Herrerias

Hey I used to be very good at almost everything so nobody cared about my drawings and I was fine about it. They were mine. I have always had a busy life. I study for a career — engineering. Now while I am trying to get my degree, working full time on IT Corporation, after a nervous collapse, I found out that I don’t simply like to draw: I love it. I never knew. I never knew I could. I am taking my first art classes and I am loving it. I love to draw. I love the sanguine, I love the dark charcoal, I love to paint in china ink, I love to paint in oil. I love it. I don’t want it to be a hobby. I don’t know too much. I don’t know what to do. I am struggling with this. I need advice.


Mutism saves sanity
by Jacqueline Baldini, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada


“Niagara Lilac Gardens”
oil painting, 20 x 24 inches
by Jacqueline Baldini

Thank you for explaining my bouts of ‘strangeness.’ I have always thought of this as an offspring of not being afraid to be alone. But, truth be told, these bouts of mutism save my sanity, nourish my spirit and I have always coveted them and looked forward to them with great anticipation when I could see a span of alone time possibly forming on the horizon.




Dogs have to nudge her
by Pat Shepherd

At the end of an absorbing week-long course in teaching and integrating arts we had a social hour. Two of the women talked about how talkative they were and how quiet their husbands were around them. I told them it was the same in our house. Both women stopped talking and looked at me with incredulous looks. I realized then that I had barely spoken the entire week. They thought I was quiet — really, really quiet. I’d just been immersed in my art! People who know me know that I talk but when I paint not a word. It’s my own little world. In fact my dogs nudge my hand to get attention.


Sadness and loss prevails
by Gena Courtney, Macon, GA, USA


Sgt. Kelley Lance Courtney, USMC 1976-2004

Our son, Sgt. Kelley Lance Courtney was killed in action in Iraq on October 30, 2004. He leaves behind a wife and two small children and parents, family and friends that love him and miss him so much. I hope we will find peace. The struggle to put one foot in front of the other is our goal today. I am hesitantly thankful for a large unfinished painting gathering dust during the last three months that seems to beckon me through the paralyzing darkness. Family, friends and grandchildren have helped ease the pain tremendously, as well. We are still not out of the dark.

(RG note) Our deepest condolences, Gena. A memorial to Sgt. Kelley Courtney is at Making Everlasting Memories.





Divine Messengers

Spirit art painting
by Sandy Sandy, Tabernacle, NJ, 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, 2005.

That includes Dick Thompson who wrote, “The reason a dog has so many friends is that he wags his tail instead of his tongue.”

And also Cindy Frostad who wrote, “I taught on and off for twenty years. I was a wannabe artist. Not until I read your letter did I realize that I did not start doing my own art until I stopped teaching. (Then I lost my words!)”

And also Lori Lukasewich who wrote, “As much as teaching has been a great blessing in my life, I would have nothing at all to teach without my practice.”

And also Max de Talent who wrote, “In an art-show, I know that I speak too much about my paintings. The more I speak the less I sell.”

And also Christine Taylor, Barbados who wrote, “Reading these email letters and looking at everyone’s art helps me click into my paint mode.”

And also Virginia Wieringa who wrote, “I liked this quote from your book The Painter’s Keys: ‘An unimpressed encourager should be kissed regularly.’ I think I’ll go kiss my encourager and be quiet for a while.”

And also Kathy Kanzier of Ozark, Missouri, who wrote, “Each time I read these letters, I wonder… who is this guy? Can you share a bit about yourself with me? I’d appreciate it because it would help to put these readings in perspective.” (RG note) Thanks, Kathy. There’s some info about me in a brief album on our site: Robert Genn Album.




Leave A Reply

No Featured Workshop
No Featured Workshop

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

Subscribe and receive the Twice-Weekly letter on art. You’ll be joining a worldwide community of artists.
Subscription is free.