Practically every day artists write to let me in on the inner nuances of their personal relationships. Some write with praise — others complain about how things have turned out. Some ask me to suggest something. This is a considerable responsibility — like trying to crit an unseen painting over the phone. Apart from the few who have no close relationships, the people who send these incoming emails often describe one of five types of significant others:
Discouraging, negative or openly hostile
Disinterested, ignorant or mildly oblivious
Amused, tolerant, neutral or patronizing
Encouraging, positive or enthusiastic
Overwhelmingly supportive and totally involved
Funnily, artists with partners (or parents) at either end of this spectrum can be complainers. A lot of problems relate to different personality types — introverts versus extroverts, practical versus impractical, or highly sensitive persons living with beer-drinking jocks. “My wife,” wrote J.M., “golfs, jogs, frisbees and goes to bars. The only thing she cares about is that the goose keeps laying the golden eggs. I’m the goose.” There’s a bit of resentment out there. Also writing are artists who welcome the chasm between themselves and their others — perhaps a ploy to get some creative time to themselves.
In art as in life, relationship difficulties can be turned into convenient scapegoats for perceived failure. Whether in a state of true love or not, an artist has to realize that when push comes to shove, most of us are pretty much on our own. Art is generally not a group activity, nor does art always profit from the input of a close being. On the other hand, I get good reports from broader-based divisions of labour such as the creator-distributor duo where she paints and he talks. Or where he writes and she edits, she carves and he ships, or he weaves and he embroiders.
It may take considerable effort, empathy and fine tuning to balance a life in art with a relationship — to my knowledge there’s no weekend workshop. Living internally and working for the love of it makes us a unique study. And while we can be difficult for many folks to understand, it’s not their fault. We have chosen to be this way, but we are not chosen people. There are no chosen people. Sometimes it may be okay to golf.
PS: “What great artist?” (Reportedly said by Nora Barnacle, the wife of James Joyce, to a journalist who knocked on their door in 1932 and asked, “Is the great artist at home?”)
Esoterica: Several recent letters have described an ideal partner as being “self-amusing,” or “having their own itinerary.” This may be all the support some artists need. Their partners may intuitively understand the fragility of the muse and the potential pitfalls in an individualistic, ego-based effort. I’m not going to make a case for this because, as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate the value and the joy of true connectivity and creative like-mindedness. But there is still something to be said for just being left alone.
Perfect husband dept.
by Monika Welch, Tauranga, New Zealand
He can’t paint a straight or even curvy line (and has no desire to) but he can pack paintings to be reckoned with any world-class freight company. He couldn’t work out how to make an easel that adjusted to height and size so I now have six large easels all at different levels. He loves attending the openings of my “expeditions” and has managed to get his tongue round the word ‘triptych’. His only regret that I don’t paint any triptychs anymore. He never offers too much ‘blah’ but has the uncanny knack of knowing when it’s time to stop and, “Look at it tomorrow with fresh eyes!”
(RG note) Thanks, Monika. We received so many ‘perfect supporting role husband’ type letters that it made me extremely proud of the contribution that we men appear to be making on a regular basis.
Perfect wife dept.
by Charly Hansen, Traverse City, MI, USA
Back in the early to mid-1980s I was a painting student at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI. My instructor, John Egner and I went to the Detroit Institute of Art to hear Richard Serra lecture on his art. John asked him, “What advice would you give a graduating art student?” Serra replied, “You should have one other person you show your work to. You don’t have to listen to him or her. I’m lucky, I have my wife as that ‘one.’ ”
My wife is not a painter, but over the forty years of our marriage she is an artist at looking at my work. I don’t always listen to her but because of the continuity, that ‘perspective’ I feel has served me admirably. I’m also lucky.
(RG note) Thanks, Charly. Thanks also to everyone who wrote with sincere spousal stories of encouragement, constructive criticism, unwavering support, and love.
Artists without partners
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
I feel that having a partner who is a creator would be the way to go. I have freedom to come and go, to do plein air whenever the mood strikes. On the other hand, there are the times when it would be oh so nice to have a partner to share the special moment out in the field or in the studio, or even in the kitchen. What we need is a Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Artists without Partners adjunct to your letter that would give like-minded people a venue for meeting. This is the toughest task because actually, it is not so easy to live with us as artists. At least we could be difficult and understand why.
Afloat in our little boats
by James Webb, West Chester, PA, USA
This little tidbit was given to me by an old artist who had survived himself mentally and was happy. “Just think of yourself as an artist being in a little rowboat out at sea, paddling around with a bunch of other artists trying to row to a safe harbor.” Just as in any relationship, storm and calm, warm or cold, as artists, it comes with the territory. Like the little boat we each have, art is personal, judgmental in nature, challenging, frustrating, challenging and rewarding. Keep the personal relationships outside of the boat and you’ll stay afloat.
Lousy relationship works too
Interestingly, for achieving long work hours and pure financial joy a good route is to have a lousy relationship. In this way the artist gets away from the situation and has the most daily satisfaction in the studio, stays out of trouble, and can keep up appearances of being a good person in the community. My guess is that many artists have this situation and are reluctant to admit it.
(RG note) My sincere thanks to all of the anonymous persons who made contributions. They will remain anonymous. Also, I’m sorry, but I do not feel I have the proper qualifications to comment on specific cases of Fibromyalgia and art, depression and art, migraines and art, as well as other maladies or psychological conditions. Nor do I give specific marital advice or relationship counselling. In some cases we have forwarded letters to others who are trusted friends and may have more authority in specific fields, or who have themselves had similar afflictions or conditions. These persons may or may not respond.
Avoiding the ‘put down spouse’
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czechoslovakia
I’m now on wife number three and got a good chuckle from this. A sixth variation I have encountered, personally and with friends is the “put down spouse” who, since they cannot or will not create anything, they belittle those who do. My wife number three is wonderful and supportive but cannot see it as more than a ‘hobby’ though it brings in nearly as much as the teaching.
Just ask his opinion
by Debi Rice, NYC, NY, USA
My husband and I have been married 34 years… and in this time he has reacted in many different ways to my creations. Finally one evening about a month ago I asked him…”What do you really think?” His reply surprised me: “I think if you are happy doing your thing, and I am happy doing my thing. and we are happy doing our thing, then we are all happy. Balance, dear Debi, Balance.” And that was the end of the conversation. It summed up everything quite well. I smile now at the thought: “Why didn’t I ask him his opinion before?”
Hubby joins cadre of honoured patrons
by Lorion Korkosz, Glenville, NY, USA
For years, before my work started to sell, I teased my husband that when he married me, he didn’t realize he was going to be a “patron of the arts.” I told him he was in good company: the Popes, the Medicis, among others. Those folks kept their artists fed, clothed and housed, while letting them “do their thing,” though not necessarily without some input (read interference). He enjoyed that, and as a result, I think he became even more supportive.
Family not into art
by Hymne Laubscher, Stellenbosch, South Africa
I enjoyed this letter on relationships in art extremely. I also receive a lot of criticism from my family… and most from the ones who have no art education and very little appreciation. Understanding is something I do not even expect. But I chose this route… so I have to deal with it in the best way possible. I find that people only learn things they are really interested in… and the rest of my family are just not that much into art.
Get a wife
by Karen Gillis Taylor, Niwot, CO, USA
At a Barbara Nessim workshop years ago, B. remarked that she had recently hired an assistant to be “the wife.” Women artists frequently long for someone to do the daily chores and household things which draw us away from painting. What a luxury it would be to have “a wife.” If I could turn my husband into a wife for a full day, would I be happy? Maybe I would end up going back to my original thought: it is better to be left alone than to have a lurking critic, worse, one with dishpan hands.
Get a ‘Joe’
by Tanis Alexis Laird, Vancouver, BC, Canada
With my amazing partner Joe’s photographs, I was able to create 12 oil paintings and we are now running down to our last 2 weeks before our first art show. What I love more is the confidence I have gained in believing that we can make a completely independent show successful based on our own hard work. From the start Joe has always told me that life is much easier once you start really believing and trusting yourself. It sounds easy — but to actually trust yourself completely, no matter what, is a big test. I am ever so grateful for his support, his belief in me, and his creative sensitivity.
Outside support networks
by Collette Fergus, Waikato, New Zealand
My husband is in the corporate field and we are poles apart in what makes us tick, however he makes a real effort to attend my art functions, gallery openings, etc. and appears interested in what I do. My main outlet for my artspeak, however, comes in the form of support networks within the arts industries. We have a group who meet for drinks as well as an online support group where I have met like-minded individuals and we chat often, comparing notes on art, artists, techniques etc., so we get that support in other quarters. It’s good to get support from people who actually do understand where you are coming from.
Selfishness of an artist
by Nancy McGrath, Wynantskill, NY, USA
I am a person who has never been bored. I am always frustrated that I don’t have enough time to do everything I have in mind to do. I had a mentor in college, Dr. Arthur Young. He was an author and one day we had a long talk about the selfishness of being an artist. He also lived alone and said that he just didn’t want to take the time for marriage, etc. That he wanted to remain true to his quest and only concentrate on his work. I don’t know if this philosophy is abnormal for artists.
by Bodacious Jones, Fayetteville, NY, USA
I was a little surprised to not see: s/he paints, s/he models. Like the artist/model-spouse relationships of Rembrandt and Hendrickjes, Renoir and Aline, Hopper and Jo. I married my first model. When we married, it was because while working together, we found we could each bring to the other something we were missing in our lives. It was very much like an arranged marriage — a business relationship of practicality more than lust and passion. But not having married for love, we never fell out of love as we grew older, and in fact grew more comfortable with each other over the decades. Kinda like the song: “Do you love me?” from Fiddler on the Roof. It’s thirty years later, our partnership has endured, we have two wonderful adult children, and although she no longer models for me, our relationship is still strong.
Making love for creative inspiration
by Laney Vickery, Eureka, CA, USA
I’m not now, nor have been for a long time, in a relationship at all but when I was, I found making love energized me for painting. After painting for many hours, my interest and creative spirits flagged and I began to think about love and sex. Then when I got together with him, how wonderful and as soon as I’d had my fill, all I wanted to do was to get back into the studio, bursting with energy, ideas and enthusiasm. I always did my best painting after a satisfying interlude. Is that how men feel? I don’t know if other women artists feel that way but love always was a source of great enthusiasm. For me, having a partner was worth the serious effort whatever the detractions.
by Ginger Young, Spring, TX, USA
I’ve learned over many years, a marriage, and long term relationships, that I give too much of myself. The other person didn’t demand it, but I expected them to need certain things from me, so my art was put on the back burner and I ended up being very unhappy. I stopped looking for a relationship, or even anyone to date, many years ago, although I will be fifty tomorrow. I am much happier by myself, with my wonderful rescued greyhound. We do what we want, when and as we want.
Respect of boundaries
by Janet Sellers, Monument, CO, USA
Relationships require various levels of respect (current pop name used is ‘boundaries’). Do these relatives on that list expect a surgeon’s spouse in the O.R. to discuss vacation plans, sex, dinner, finances… or a roomful of accountants, lawyers, shrinks or CEO’s doing their work simultaneously with each other watching them or the client with their set of private client issues in full view — no! because it is private! The needs of inner work has its own development, art, music, and, yes, business and health. And the social rapport has its own agenda. They don’t have to be combined, but they must be met. Old proverbs say it well: “Kindness between father and child, harmony between husband and wife.” (Chinese Proverb) “Love me when I least deserve it, because that’s when I really need it.” (Swedish Proverb) “Before enlightenment chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” (Ancient Chinese Proverb)
Where’s the Medici?
by Cleta Grant, San Francisco, CA, USA
The thing I wish for is a Cosmo Medici. Where is my Medici? Where is my art patron? Since when is art relegated to a process that is seen lacking in the light of technological endeavors — where the product and not the process is so highly valued? So, if I had a complaint, it would be “Why, when so many things are going “retro” (cars, clothes, hair, etc.) why isn’t there a retro back to Renaissance times when artists were highly valued and sought after — a time when huge amounts of money were available to advance the arts — much like the venture capital funding thrown at the dot com companies in the late ’90s and 2000?” But, alas, we are too far gone as a society for that, I fear. So, while we have longer lives, better health and hygiene than 400 years ago, we’ve lost out on other things. Having the time to paint with abandon and the best materials available — now that would affect my art.
Getting your chakras right
by Gena LaCoste, Medicine Hat, AB, Canada
Ah, yes, relationship — I was just thinking about this today, as I spent some heavenly time pulling the winter hair off my horse. I’m a single woman (if you’ve been divorced longer than you were married, you get to re-claim the “single” designation), who has just watched my only chick gallop off and join the Canadian army. I live alone, and have had no “significant other” for 11 years (no insignificant others either). I spent my 1st 40 years pleasing other people; was in the health-care field, then owned a retail business, was married and a Mom. I “Came to” luckily, before I’d completely given myself away. Have you ever read Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss? She aligns the issues in our lives with our 7 Chakras, or energy centers. The 2nd chakra, in the center of our lower abdomen, where our female organs are, is where our creative energy arises (men too). When I’m really in the zone with my painting, I can feel it; such an incredible feeling of well-being. My experience is that when I’m in a relationship with a man, I use all this energy in maintaining that relationship. I’m an addict in that way, and seem unable to find a balance, or even a sniff of a boundary when it comes to this. His needs, wants, agenda, demands, whims, and timetable come before mine every time! I’m lucky in that I know that about myself, and I’m very comfortable with my decision to go “cold turkey” and on my own. I love my time alone, and have many solitary pursuits, my painting included. I also have a fabulous family and many friends, who will hopefully prevent me from becoming a weird old cat lady. So, I’ve chosen to make my primary relationship the one with myself. When you stand and look deeply within, what you find is infinity.
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Fritzi Huber of Wilmington, NC, USA who wrote, “I appreciate your reply regarding relationships but it didn’t have much to do with my letter to you about my galleries closing. In fact, I have no partner. I am a person on her own. So, this info would be useful for someone who is in a relationship. Perhaps you’ve sent me the wrong e-mail.”
And also Todd Dawson who wrote, “As a single artist living alone, it makes me realize (again) that singleness has its advantages.”
And also Michael Campbell of Gainesville, FL, USA who wrote, “If we artists are discomforted by our life circumstances we need only look candidly at who we believe we are.”
And also Roland Ford who wrote, ” In the end, the only thing that matters to a true artist is his art.”
And also Jeanine Fondacaro of Orange, CA, USA who wrote, “Being single for the past eight or so years, I have come to realize that I only have myself to count on to be totally ‘into’ what I do. No one else cares as much as I do how often I paint or what great ideas I have.”
And also Judy Orme of USA who wrote, “Yes, there are weekend workshops! Please visit our website: www.familytransformations.com You can view the offerings there… ”
And also Odette Nicholson of Saskatoon, SK, Canada who wrote, “That you don’t personally know most of your readers allows you to parachute in and more clearly see through or around their problems. You can do amazing things using their ideas by simply gathering, thinking about, then posting them and exposing us to ourselves and each other.”