Dave Louis of Coventry, UK writes, “I’ve been an artist for 25 years. It’s only now (age 43) that I have the true vision and conviction in what and how I want to paint. I am highly self-critical but I feel I have reached a maturity in my painting. The problem is that my work has taken an autobiographical turn with violent unsettling imagery and isolation (based on living in a children’s home from 2 till 16 years of age and never seeing my parents). My recent paintings are difficult to produce both technically and emotionally but I feel that they are valid and I have a strong will to do them and face my demons. I have been told these paintings are very accomplished but also very noncommercial. Does this mean as a professional artist I am doomed to failure?”
Thanks for that, Dave. While you are not alone, your background is unique. For a time at least, let your condition be the driving force, the very energy of your work. This is an opportunity. There are two good reasons for doing this. One is that you may paint out your unpleasant memories, fears and misfortunes. It might only take ten paintings to exorcise your devils. It may be a surprise where it will take you. You may emerge at the other end with sunnier, more optimistic work. But you must go through the swamp to get to the sunny fields.
Another reason is that in every lemon there is lemonade. Your trials are worth exploring — even exploiting. Abandonment and isolation are universal conditions — perhaps more so these days than ever before. Your upbringing, or lack of it, could be one of your great gifts to the world. To hell with immediate commerce. This is worth doing. This sort of adversity is the very substance of great art. Commercially speaking, you might even find dealers, venues, audiences, who will believe in the true story that only you can tell. It wouldn’t be the first time. And I have the feeling that, no matter what the outcome, you and your project will have been a success.
PS: “A great artist… must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.” (Goethe)
Esoterica: Read biographies of others with similar trials, become an expert on your affliction, look her square in the face, and remember that it’s often not what you paint but how you paint it. “The artist is the child in the fable; every one of whose tears was a pearl.” (Heinrich Heine)
The following are selected correspondence arising from the above and other letters. Thank you for writing.
by Edward G. Sauer, Costa Mesa, California, USA
Dave Louis’ letter and your response moved in on one of the key aspects of art for me. Expression. Moving the energy inside to the outside. John Bradshaw, he of the “Inner Child” fame, was fond of saying E-motion is energy in motion. As I go through life’s trials and turmoils it is often my drawing and painting that allows me to move through pain and hurt. The expression of my emotion, my visceral reaction is a powerful tool for dealing with what the world throws at me. These are also very powerful tools, more like friends in a way, in helping me to dig deep and bring forth healing and deepening of my soul by moving old hurt, pain, bitterness and grief out onto paper and canvas. Value is not limited to monetary or commercial compensation. The value of knowing oneself and finding some peace can easily exceed dollars, pound sterling, francs, etc. “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right” (Henry Ford)
Art takes time
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK
Painting is about communication. As an artist you communicate what you have to communicate. You can have an audience of one (yourself) or two or two hundred or two million. In time, as you become a better artist you become better at communicating and the audience grows. Worry not about the size of the audience; worry about the message and your skill in presenting the message. We used to talk about “selling out” — code really for placing commercial considerations ahead of the truth. Good artists (those who retain their integrity and have grit) are usually successful in time. It can’t be hurried. Art takes time.
Providence will provide the path
by Su Schultz
Sometimes a theme—the impetus that is at the core of each work of art — is the very element that attracts a cultural center or gallery or museum to give an artist a one man show or exhibition. Complete the work and then worry about what other uses it may serve. The work and the healing that comes through it is the merit, God or providence will provide the path that leads to commerce of the finished product.
Not going crazy
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
It seems that David is beginning to deal with his past through his art. This can happen when we’ve reached a place where we’re stuck emotionally and need to deal with the past before we can move on. We have to be emotionally ready to handle the past. I would strongly urge David, or anyone experiencing such “violent unsettling imagery” to seek out the help of a skilled therapist — spiritual psychotherapist or art therapist. Expressing the imagery may not be enough to heal — he may need to have help to make sense of it and know that he is not going crazy.
May be a prerequisite
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
The problem for an artist is not how to get through the kind of emotional tension Dave talks about, but what to do if you DO get through it! It’s this kind of tension that engenders great art. It drives the art without regard for the artist’s financial well being or acceptance in the “Art World” or anything else. Having this certainly doesn’t guarantee that we’re going to produce great art, but it may be a prerequisite. The muse is born in pain, thrives on it and loves to inflict it. It can even be argued that art (at least our modern idea of it) is a symptom of disease of our incompleteness. So what happens when, maybe after those 10 paintings Robert mentioned, the disease is cured? Voila! We have become whole! Can great art be made in a state of emotional and sexual fulfillment, intellectual and moral self-satisfaction? What happens to art when the lemon turns into lemonade? When the muse settles down and turns into my loving wife? That’s the scary part.
by Nicole B. Rudderham
All the years I’ve been struggling to stop painting for the sake of others’ opinions, and do it for personal satisfaction or release, come to mind after reading this. I think you should forget about the commercial end of it all, for the moment especially. You’ve acknowledged that you are releasing emotions that need to be expressed! That’s wonderful in itself. An artist friend of mine does art therapy and finds that just painting, drawing, or creating anything, to express inner thoughts that would normally not surface in the presence of others; is the healing factor. Good luck and keep on painting. I hope you find your sweet lemonade!
Show demons to the world
by Mary Jean Mailloux, Oakville, Ontario, Canada
I remember trying to paint out my childhood, I think that this might be essential to some of us. Especially if that childhood was impoverished. The unspoken messages from authority figures, about my ability and worth, thwarted my creativity to the point of not being able to paint at all. (This was during a year of art school in France). Showing the world the demons in my mind, (even badly painted) made them lose their power. I was able to go on then and loosen up and paint the life energy and struggle around me with the passion and vision of the present, unhindered by the baggage of the past. There are many painters who painted painful and personal experiences. Picasso’s Guernica, many of Francis Bacon’s, even The Scream by Edvard Munch are not especially pretty pieces, but they are masterpieces. I don’t think the painters were thinking of their commercial value.
by June Raabe
Dave Louis must follow his muse even if it may not seem to be “customer pleasing.” Picasso’s pictures of Guernica, the Spanish civil war are horrifying, but necessary images, for us to “know” the agony of war. As a Spaniard, Picasso felt very keenly his country’s pain. His paintings are a valid comment for history. Recently, I went on a tour to some public galleries. One creation I saw was a closed loop TV image of a golf green with many balls lying at random… every minute or so a ball came flying across the screen… you never knew where it would come from, it’s arc or it’s destination, until it happened! I stood and watched for quite a few minutes. It was visual fun for me, I do not know if it had a meaning or not, and I don’t care, but it was fun watching! To me, painting is all about “emotion.” We do indeed identify with something we too have experienced and it makes us feel less “alone” in the world. Perhaps Dave will exorcise his devils and return to a different style of painting when he no longer has secrets in his soul.
Hooked on external validation
We artists can really get hooked on “external validation.” It’s like I’ve come do depend on some sort of response to my art, even if it’s negative. I find myself fishing for a response amongst my colleagues. The thing is, if they like me as a person and don’t like the art, they’ll just say yeah, it’s great. I’ve done that when other artists fish for validation. I give them what they want. And if they don’t like me they simply don’t respond, whether they like the art or not. So I’m concluding that validation from art colleagues usually isn’t valid, it’s just another set of opinions. I have to say also that a few times I’ve asked colleagues to crit unfinished work and they came up with good suggestions. What I’m differentiating here is the difference between fishing for “feel-good” validations and a request for an honest critique. It’s all too easy to whip out a photo of an artwork and show it, kind of like photos of your kids. The point is, why do I (or anyone) feel the need for this? And what to do when that need comes on? Because it’s coming from that needy part, not the wiser part that knows that the reason I’m fishing for validation is because I’m not really confident that it’s my best work, or, if it’s a new direction, that the work is not developed enough to be shown in public. It’s a very childlike thing to do, and as my friend said, the only worthwhile validation comes from within. She also seemed to hint that the only worthwhile external validation is the marketplace.
The following are a few more of the 400 or so entries that have come in since the contest was announced. They are not necessarily finalists in the “Free Painting Workshop in Brittany” contest. The contest is open until June 15, 2002.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 100 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2002.
That includes Sharon McCord who wrote, “We as artists are always painting from our hearts and should go with the flow and not always be concerned about whether or not it will sell. I can’t think of a healthier way to get out emotions and to say the things that we don’t always have words for.”