Yesterday, a friend phoned and brought my attention to a study done at the Harvard Medical Center. It seems that nurture, not nature, is the big factor in the making of creative genius. Talent and genius are not inherited. These were the findings of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, the principle author of the study. Thirty years of research concluded that creative intelligence is due largely to parents’ own unfulfilled dreams of high creative achievement. Researchers used Nobel Prize laureates, Booker and Pulitzer Prize winners, and other cultural and literary awards as evidence of literary genius. These were measured against eminent persons in non-creative occupations. Less than 1% of the eminently creative types had eminently creative parents. This compared, in one example, with 16% for non-creative folks who turned out to have one or both parents in the same profession.
Older studies — notably the work of 19th century psychologist Sir Francis Galton, had concluded that talent and genius were inherited. The founder of the Eugenics movement, Galton was working with mainly British aristocracy where primogeniture and the continuation of father-son professions were the norm. In the Harvard study, it seems that “being read to or told stories by parents or grandparents” was the most important indicator of future literary stardom.
Accepting that visual art achievement is a little harder to quantify, early art appreciation and parental approval of creative effort may be of the highest value. In the interest of grabbing some facts, we’ve devised a questionnaire to see if Rothenberg’s conclusions might apply to us. You can find it at
Also yesterday, another telephone colleague complained that he received nothing but parental abuse and discouragement in his art. But his tough and contrary nature saw him overcome. He told me how he taught himself what he needed to know, learned to work the system, and won. Maybe he was an exception. Maybe not. Something I’ve noticed though — love and anger are both valid motivators. When there is love there is nurture. Love is the sweeter way.
PS: “Where there is natural growth, a full and free play of faculties, genius will manifest itself.” (Robert Henri) “That’s very good Bob.” (Florence Genn, my mother, when I was about four)
Esoterica: Then there is “non-achievement” by the offspring of the focused and perhaps famous parent. Add to that the mystery of father-son and mother-daughter dynamics. “Coming up to expectations” and “being her own person” enact their toll. In my opinion general stroking should take precedence over specific management. The “I’m okay, you’re okay,” idea. As well, the thought needs to be gently spread around the dinner table that the future sky can handle lots of stars.
It’s all in the paint
by Tom Disch, Barryville, NY, USA
The offspring of literary and painterly parents have very different relationships to heritable “creativity.” The tradition of painters taking after a parental model are part of a craft tradition. While literature is full of father/son, mother/daughter double bios (Dumas, Amis, etc.) the passing along of writerly how-to is not as dependable. Also, it is easier for unliterary offspring to break into the business. The entrance fees are lower, so to speak.
My long-time conviction is that real artists don’t need much outside motivation. The experience of painting is its own good and sufficient motivator.
Painted out her demons
by Martha Greenwald, Winona, MN, USA
A number of years back I was feeling frustrated with certain patterns in my life that kept repeating themselves, including a tendency for depression. I became determined to identify what these patterns were, and eventually developed fifteen paintings of my demons, or beasts, all of which represented unwanted personality traits. These all were little grotesque creatures, like “Aunt Pity,” a crouching, cringing beast who feels sorry for herself, or “The Scold,” a skulpy-like creature with a rigid attitude and head like a hammer. Creating these beasts was both cathartic and entertaining. I am working on a book about the many insights I have gained from my beasts. Once we realize that we are creating our thoughts, we can start to be freed from them. The visual arts is a great tool for knowing what you want for yourself, say beauty or creative flow, and for identifying exactly what is holding you back.
by Tommy Ray Clark, Campbellsville, KY, USA
I will have to disagree with the author who said that talent is not passed down from parent to parent. My Grandpa was very creative, he invented a lot of the tools that he used in farming and later in upholstery. My own daddy was very creative, in furniture, pottery and floor design. All of his brothers were very creative, as well as their children. I am an art professor at a small Baptist University in Kentucky. My talent lies in sculpture, watercolour and pottery. My children are all creative — my oldest son is into invention, much like his great grandpa. My daughter is into musical areas, my youngest is into Photography. My oldest son’s son, Gabriel, now 6, likes to draw and make clay animals. I do not believe that all of these family members’ talent was just coincidence, they all inherited this talent.
Nurture worked here
by Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA
We have no knowledge of our son’s birth background but being a visual artist myself, our adopted son has been exposed and encouraged in the arts since he joined our family soon after birth, almost 18 years ago. Plenty of art materials have always been made available to him. He took a portfolio of his work to his “interview day” at his prospective high school four years ago and it was both his security blanket and the bridge that enabled our extremely shy child to integrate into this new environment. Now at graduation, he’s received two of the school’s art awards (printmaking and videography) and will head off to be a film and videography major in college. Though my Mom was a professional cake decorator and Dad loved crafts, I didn’t get serious about art until my late 40s. I wish I’d done what my son is doing and majored in art so I guess I’m right in there with the research on “unfulfilled dreams.”
Self-taught ability to create
by Peter Shulman, Richmondville, NY, USA
There is no mention of artistic parents for either Michelangelo or Da Vinci as far as my research reveals. Van Gogh’s mother liked to sketch, but she made fun of his early, clumsy attempts to draw. Artemesia Gentileschi followed in her father’s footsteps. No mention of Rembrandt’s parents’ input. Painting was considered irreligious by Jewish Marc Chagall’s heritage, but his mother encouraged him anyway. Picasso’s father taught art and instructed the young Picasso as well. Michelangelo, Matisse, Toulouse Lautrec, Cézanne, et al had fathers who actively punished or discouraged their pursuit of art. There seems to be no pattern why some defy all odds to persist. Perhaps they (we) are just strong-willed!
Art on a lonely Saturday night
by Vicki Easingwood, Victoria, BC, Canada
When I had been to university for a year, I returned home and one night had an incredible urge to paint. I managed to find a drug store open on a Saturday night and bought the elementary watercolour set (with maybe 5 colours plus black and white) and that night with that awful brush created my first watercolour painting. As I was on my own it wasn’t torn up by any adult. I’ve not really stopped painting since. There have been times when painting took a back seat, but it was and is always a part of me. My parents were not supportive of ‘art’ and wanted us to all become professionals (which did happen) but 3 of the 4 of us have all ventured into art as adults. Were my parents not artistic? I don’t know — it certainly didn’t show. It certainly wasn’t nurture either. I don’t know where I got ‘it’ from, but I’m glad for that lonely Saturday night with a drug store that was still open for business.
Single criteria not valid
by Carol Williams
I question the premise implied by the research mentioned in your letter that only those who have won public acclaim for greatness are capable of it. Focusing on those who have won various awards for evidence of creative genius is misleading. The capacity or potential for creative genius may indeed be genetically transmitted, even though the recipient of these genes may not realize their potential, for a variety of reasons. When you objectively quantify people’s lives and abilities based on a single criteria, many critical, not so obvious pieces of the puzzle are hidden from view.
It is so liberating
by Lola M. Cornish, Napa, CA, USA
I work in Resource & Referral and I run a toy library — a place where parents and kids can come to play and check out toys to take home. As students of child development, we have always known that when it comes to the learning and experience of children, it is the process and not the product that is most important. In January, we hired a new librarian. Za is a local artist, and she brings her passion for art into the workplace. She started art workshops for children of any age. Even infants come to play in her paints and mold with her clays. Za is so open, so attached to the children experiencing rather than “making something,” which is so common in the minds of their parents. It has been such a joy watching her teach these parents that this is an experience for the child, let the child do it alone. Za lets the parents make their own art if they can’t keep their hands off the child’s work. The hunger to explore materials is so evident in the child’s eyes, and in the parent’s as well. I can see that many of the parents probably missed out on the experience of smearing shaving cream on the bathroom mirror for the sensory experience or eating paint to see if red tastes different from yellow. We just let them dig in. The messier the better, the more learning comes from this creative chaos. Think of the satisfaction the child feels in having his art simply appreciated rather than being asked “what is it?” It is so liberating!
A precious inheritance
by Shirley Flinn, Lacome, AB, Canada
As of January this year I no longer have the privilege of having a parent to call. While growing up, I had to help with the care of the home and meals from the age of 10. During this time my friends seemed to have it all, and of course I thought I was hard done by. As an adult I see that it was the only way my parents could think of to prepare me for life. They left me with the most precious inheritance, they taught me to work hard and be honest. If there was something that I truly desired, the only one who could make it happen was myself, by goal setting and hard work. For the most part I have attained my goals, some were not practical — like heli-skiing. Sometimes more important things have popped up to take precedence. I still dream of taking a hot air balloon ride, there’s still time for that seed to grow. I hope that I have shown by example and improved on my parents’ legacy by adding a dash more of love, encouragement and enthusiasm for exploring passions.
Seeing others bloom like flowers
I am a registered Art Therapist. My oldest great-granddaughter, age 4, just made a felt at a farmers market and gave it to her mom. My son does a variety of expressive arts. My high school art teacher, Mr. Lloyd Angell, gave us an art lesson. Each child’s desk had a baseball size piece of clay on it. Wow, I didn’t have to stay in the box. I still have that piece. Mr. Angell wherever you are, Thank you, from the third grade through my first year of college in the mid ’50s you gave all your students the wonders of sensory expression. Art as Therapy is alive and well in Middle America. Also from the Cherokee Youth I am privileged to use the healing arts. To the art therapists and survivors of the Oklahoma City bombing, to the men and women who let art come to babes that have been less than loved — it is so wonderful to see others bloom like fresh flowers.
(RG note) Some remarkable material on art therapy is at http://painterskeys.com/healingart/
by Doug Mays, Stoney Creek, ON, Canada
I had always held out faint hope that one of my two daughters would follow me in my enthusiasm for the visual arts but to date neither has. That’s not to say they aren’t creative, on the contrary, both are very creative in their own ways. Our first grandchild was born a little over two years ago and from age one I would take every opportunity to draw her pictures on the toy called ‘Magna Doodle’. What a wonderful toy to peek her interest in visual art. We play a game where I draw something and she guesses what it is. In this way she learns and appreciates how to draw and I find out, through her, if my drawing skills are still intact. I recommend Magna Doodle for all grandparents.
Billy did it
by Kosta Alexandratos, Perth, Australia
I was introduced to your website by good friend of mine and artist, Bill Cranny in Perth, Western Australia, who has generously given me some of his time over the past few years. Your site and contributors are a wonderful continuation of my introduction to the world of art and those who generously give of their insights, their passion not to mention expertise in this craft. What a liberating experience to feel part of this. And what an enlightening and fulfilling world it is to which I have been introduced by my good friend Billy.
by Cindy Schave, Platteville, WI, USA
I’m about to complete the questionnaire, but first I had to comment that the most profound part of your letter is contained in the last few sentences: “…love and anger are both valid motivators. When there is love there is nurture. Love is the sweeter way.” Maybe I’m an idealist, but I cannot help but think what a healthy dose of unconditional love, spread all the way around, might accomplish for the future of the human race on this planet. There is too much energy spent hashing over our differences, and way too little thought put into the incomparable virtues of tolerance, compassion, and unconditional love. If that’s too difficult to comprehend, maybe each of us can start with one small action… a single drop of any kindness creates a ripple that, when meeting others of its kind, can grow into a wave. Think of the awesome power of the tides and visualize the possibilities.
“Love, compassion, and tolerance are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” (The Dalai Lama)
In your survey you asked if anyone might have been a positive influence in my life. It is you Robert. While I’ve been influenced in my personal style by many artists, some of whom I have known, it is through the connection to your letters and your contributors that I have made the most progress. Your site is a forum. It runs on intelligence, candor and sensitivity. It is so far above everything else I have ever found.
(RG note) In our recent survey of “Nurture versus Nature,” about half of the respondents included a short comment. Thanks for all of these, positive and negative. We have included a cross section of these comments at
oil painting on canvas by
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 Gordon Soaring Hawk who wrote, “For a long time I was “too busy” to read the mailings, and often dumped it unread. Lately, I have taken the time. Thank you. I have found some gems.”
And also Jill Brooks who wrote, “When children are read to they are often in the circle of their parents’ arms, safe and secure, and they are receiving that parents FULL attention. Does it ever get any better than that?”