Among the phone calls that came in over the weekend was one from Peter Gough of Glen Haven, Nova Scotia. Peter is a realist painter with an evolved, spiritual outlook. While painting with Peter a few years ago, I watched his almost religious zeal for light, atmosphere and luminosity.
Peter and I talked about our lifelong commitment to painting and the bad luck of my current condition. After a while there was a bit of a pause and Peter said, “I’d like to talk to you about immortality.”
When I figured out where Peter was coming from, I realized his ideas were similar to mine. “Artists are blessed,” he said, “because the things we make carry on after us.” We agreed we owed it to our art to try to develop the highest levels of quality and mastery. Immortality is not a transient or fashionable happening, it’s a forever thing and, surprisingly, it’s the simple product of love and application.
Apart from the mysterious flow of daily work, there’s the objective study of our own progress as we move along. While books, workshops and demos are certainly useful, the silent study we do while travelling on our own easels is what really shows the way. When the world is cleared of baloney, which may never happen, the greatest art will still be there. It’s worthwhile for us earthlings to at least try to be part of the event.
“Ars longa, vita brevis est,” said Hippocrates (460-377BC) “Life is short, art is long.”
For many of us, our work shows a place and a time. I think of the places I’ve sat under balmy skies and then again in the drizzling rain in the back of a car. I was there. I’ve also been concerned that the thing on the easel was not my thing, and while I might own it for a while the thing will someday be out of my control. It would be nice to nail this conundrum down. Some years ago Peter Gough started putting GPS coordinates on the back of his paintings. Not a bad start.
PS: “A part of me has become immortal, out of my control.” (Brian Eno)
Esoterica: Thank you to the thousands who wrote personal emails, posts etc. We have made a careful archive of them, as we do for all responses to every letter. Some were positive and highly uplifting, others angry, sad and resigned. Many offered first-hand experience with the same or similar disorders, and some offered diet and other advice. Several dozen recommended carrot juice. Sara went out and bought a juicer and I’m drinking carrots as I write. Sara also burned the midnight oil reading every one of your emails and has assembled a clickback of informational material that may be of use to some of you. We have also taken the liberty to add some of your really valuable emails to our live comments.
by Bruce Martin, Nelson, BC, Canada
I am stunned and deeply saddened by your latest letter. You are an amazing person whose wisdom,knowledge, insight and love has touched and enlightened the lives of so many, me included. It was a happy coincidence bumping into you and Sara some years ago at Lake O’Hara, heading back to my tent with your inspirational gift of a blank, primed 16 x 20 to encourage an exploration into acrylic. Later the thought of you, Sara and friends enjoying our cabin at Lake Edith brought me much joy. I know your inbox will be over flowing with thoughts of love and hope from the many thousands of artists worldwide, who hold you dear to their hearts. I add my voice to theirs.
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Not tomorrow, but today
by Jakki Kouffman, Santa Fe, NM, USA
As artists, we submit to the solitary rigors of the easel, so that we can say, “We were here.” To some, our need to concentrate fully on the task seems like a turning away, but we know better. In fact, we are using our short stay on this earth to channel the dreams of the many. Ours is a community service from the start.
Your wise and witty writing has been part of my life for just a few years, but it continues to serve as a reminder of a basic truth. Teaching and mentoring can take place in the classroom or in the blogosphere. But the ability to make visible what we have learned depends on the acceptance of certain facts: that our tenure here is finite; and that our essential mission is to bear witness to that precious interval with our entire being. Not tomorrow, but today.
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by Gillian Tucker, Penticton, BC, Canada
I have been reading your letters for about two years now. Your news hit me as if you were a personal friend. I want to tell you how your words have helped me through some tough struggles with the paint. Times when I didn’t like anything I was painting, I kept showing up at the easel, my job. Thank you for teaching me so much.
by Carolyn Whitney, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands
Anything I have to say about how you have helped me as a painter will sound trite but for the sake of saying nothing your 37 minute warm up has put the spring back into my march to the studio and another thing — I may resolve to never again work from another photograph. Also, I have decided to shrink my studio and work the outdoors. I will stop refusing to teach. I will make my gallery work! And I will start to write a true-to-me newsletter — today. Thank you Robert.
We paint like we live
by Christine Ritchie, Nova Scotia, Canada
It has been a joy to read your letters, Robert, and so many of my artist friends feel the same way. Thank you for your dedication and wisdom. The same energy you put into your letters shows up in your paintings. We paint like we live, don’t we? Honestly, responsibly, joyfully, heartily, boldly, spontaneously, colourfully and on and we go till our spirit takes on the biggest adventure of all — the shore we’re all headed for.
Facing our own mortality, although daunting, will be here for all of us in the wink of an eye… whether that be a month, a year or ten/twenty years, it will always feel too short to us while we are well. May the third act of your life be surrounded in the joy and celebration of a life full and rich, generous and forgiving.
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by Brian Care, Toronto, Canada / San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
What comes through in all of your letters and Esoterica and your paintings is a strong belief in the creative process, a love of nature and a sense of humour about mankind and how you perceive our place on the planet. All of this will carry you through your time with your family and friends and leave behind for others a legacy of a life well-spent… and well-recorded in words and images. Not everyone can say they have made such an indelible impression.
Do it now
by Rodney Mackay, Lunenburg, NS, Canada
I am in your debt since your letters caused me to restart a painting career, which has supported and amused me for forty years. Like you, I have raised children, in my case two boys and two girls. I faced malignant melanoma last year and decided to retire this year following the death of my last surviving teacher, Alex Colville. I like your advice having lost my first wife and her entire family to cancer. My dad also died shortly after of pancreatic cancer. I remarried after three years of mourning Anne (with an “e”) Torey, and to my surprise still walk this lovely planet with a second partner, Ruth Brown, who has been with me for seventeen years and has, literally, been a lifesaver.
Do it now! My grandfather Wes Mackay used to say “Hope for the best and expect the worst and you will never be disappointed.” Our world is indeed a vale of sorrows, seeded with great compensations in every sense.
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Eliminate the anxiety
by Nancy Ness, North Creek, NY, USA
Thank you for keeping this dialogue about art and artist going. It is comforting to get your letters and read about others with the same struggles or just to be presented with an idea to think about. I am amazed by your calm collected writings at this very difficult time. It shows a strength and dignity many of us don’t have in facing the unknown.
Over the last year, I’ve seen and experienced how doing art is good therapy. All of us hear this or know it on some level. Yet, those moments when anxiety is eliminated during tough times are precious. I wonder if the writing for you is also therapy? You have and continue to give the world not only your beautiful paintings, your conversations on creating fine art but also how to live with integrity and strength.
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. I think you are on to something about the writing being therapy for me. I feel a shortage of one-on-one connection with other artists when I’m painting, so these letters are a joy to think about and make, especially when I find out that so many seem to get so much from them.
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Our amazing duplicate system
by Don Genge, ON, Canada
Ten years ago, my doctor told me, “Get your life in order; it’s in your colon and its metastasized into your liver.”
My Oncologist also said, “Cancer always comes back.” Doctors are such pessimists. Now, ten years later, he told me he didn’t need to see me anymore.
I don’t pretend to be a paragon of some sort of miracle drug or process, but a tardy, singing, fat lady image comes to mind, especially as you write about making arrangements for homes for, or destruction of, your paintings.
On the one hand, I listened to a recent CBC Quirks and Quarks interview with the author of The Cancer Chronicles. He says cancer is an inevitable process of aging cell division. If nothing else kills us, that will. We are genetically programmed to die.
On the other hand, in preparation for recent four-way by-pass surgery (yes that too), I asked the surgeon who would “harvest” an artery from my leg for the process, “Why don’t I need that artery down there?” He said, “Our bodies are filled with amazing redundancies. You have a duplicate circulatory system. We take from one and the other takes over.” I had never really thought about that. We have two lungs, kidneys, eyes, ears, ovaries, testicles, limbs, digits and now I hear circulatory systems. Wow! What an amazing organism we are. We are like Chris Hadfield’s space suit: duplicates of everything just in case. Our amazing immune system, I’ve discovered, is capable of fascinating powers of healing and well being in us. My father-in-law healed so fast during his bypass operation that the incision was beginning to heal over before the surgeons were finished working. And recent science tells us our brains have some conscious control over that healing. Several of your friends have written about Positive Visualization and the like.
Our bodies have evolved, over millions of years, to survive! Not to die, but to survive. Our job is to help it along with diet (especially blueberries says my wife), exercise, sleep, even doctors, and positive thinking and meditation. (That last one comes from Scientific American and Super Brain by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi) I’m convinced we have more control over our physical and spiritual health than we think.
A boyhood buddy of mine was diagnosed with cancer in his pancreas. When I visited him in the hospital, he said his doctor gave him two months. He was devastated. I told him based on my experience, doctor’s weren’t always accurate in their time-line and he had the right of first refusal. He decided he wasn’t going to blindly accept that time-line and survived another two years. Two years isn’t bad. Don’t toss your paintings yet.
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The Artistic Journey
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
It appears as though many artists are on identical but separate journeys. Our individual epiphanies are only new to ourselves. They have apparently been discovered and experienced before by other artists with a similar outlook on life and creation — even Hippocrates, long before Christ.
For me and apparently many others, art is about telling a story and making a memory. Both will be around a long time. I like to look at older paintings and visit those places again. Maybe that is why I started writing those stories down from the very beginning. Memories can fade unless you chisel them down. Initially I thought it was the scientist in me wanting to observe, record and understand. Now maybe it is the right side of the brain just wanting to creatively remember, experience and still try to understand. I have remembrances about each of my 1375 or so paintings. All true. The stories include little observations, the weather and typically the when, why and where of each. They also include GPS readings from when I first bought that little toy.
None of us know how or where our journey will end or where it might lead. Maybe that doesn’t matter as much as the journey itself — the expedition of self-discovery and the memories we get to make and share along the way may be the true meaning of life…
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Enjoy the past comments below for A place and a time…
oil on canvas, 50 x 72 inches
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 Stede Barber of Los Alamos, New Mexico who wrote, “One of the most powerful posts you have ever written. Power to the Carrot Juice! We want you to stay.”
And also Lorion Korkosz of Galway Lake, NY, and St. Thomas, USVI, who wrote, “I have learned much from your twice-weekly letters over the years, even appreciate the occasional “kick in the butt” to get painting when I flag. My prayers are with you and your family during this trial.”