I’m out here on a rocky Donegal foreland. Below, on the beach, one of those smart-looking black-and-white Irish farm dogs is running loose. With no master in sight, the dog has a tennis ball she tosses in the air, chases and sometimes catches. Hit or miss, each attempt is announced with a joyful bark. She’s telling me something: “Come on, Bob, loosen up. Put joy into that stuff. Get a life. Don’t take yourself so seriously.”
Everyone has heard of the “serious artist.” The term has a lot of different meanings. To a person who paints only on Sundays, one who paints every day might be one. An artist whose work is difficult to understand may consider those who paint understandable things “not serious.” On the other hand, realistic artists sometimes consider modernists to be only wanking the public and therefore not serious. Some think serious artists are those who deal with serious subject matter — poverty, war, politics, injustice, etc. Except for a bit of irony once in a while, these folks don’t generally think humour has its place in art. You may know of artists who take themselves so seriously they become significant hazards at dinner parties.
Hey, it’s okay to be serious about honing technique, learning the ropes and trying to understand the muse.
When I was younger and much more idealistic, I used to worry I was not serious enough. In my studies, I eventually got around to the critic Bernard Berenson and was relieved by his idea that art ought to be life-enhancing and not life-deprecating. I figured it was okay to please, both myself and others. Anger and angst were just fine for anyone else.
Further, I’ve always thought that in an ideal state people should do only what they love — perhaps an impossible, hedonistic position. I’m sticking to it. The pursuit of personal joy is serious business.
To experience joy one has to consider play. The British writer G.K. Chesterton said, “Children’s play is the most serious thing.” Unfortunately, age and accumulated wisdom tend to interfere with play. It’s a human condition. Or is it?
That dog down there is seriously immature, but she has a wisdom that is worth looking into.
PS: “We have an infinite number of reasons to be happy, and a serious responsibility not to be serious.” (Maharishi Mahesh Yogi)
Esoterica: “God,” said Voltaire, “is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.” Obviously, some folks think all this seriousness is a byproduct of a great cosmic joke. And these little stretchy things — these canvases and the stuff we mark them up with — are truncated playgrounds of the human soul. In the end, it is we who can become the master jokers. “It is not necessary for the public to know whether I’m joking or whether I’m serious,” said Salvador Dali, “just as it is not necessary for me to know it myself.”
Meeting the challenge
by Scott Jennings, Sedona, AZ, USA
Here’s a quote that I have had to read to myself every so often: “The most important thing I have learned over the years is the difference between taking one’s work seriously and taking one’s self seriously. The first is imperative, and the second disastrous.” (Margot Fonteyn) In my mind, a serious artist is one that is committed to doing the very best he/she can with their talents. By maintaining standards and not letting paintings become a production line product. By sticking with a piece of artwork until it speaks to me and rewards me with that inner feeling of enlightened satisfaction. I strive to make every painting meet that challenge. Some do and some don’t. If it does not, then I don’t want it to go out into the world as a representative of what I want to say about myself and my art. I feel that if I am serious about my work creating within me a feeling of inspiration, awe and personal gratification, then the more superficial rewards of recognition, admiration and financial compensation will come on their own.
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Limited time motivates
by Jessie Rasche
Having a young child and limited time has helped me spend my time in a way that reflects my priorities, making time for art every day. Because my time is so limited, I am much more focused when painting than I ever have been before, and have seen a lot of technical improvement as a result. It appears that for me, feeling desperately short on time is the best motivation I could have to take my art seriously.
Joyful child archetype
by Cathy Harville, Gambrills, MD, USA
I have been working on learning about my archetypes, and the child is one we all share. I use my child to paint. My joyful child loves the color, the adventure, and the process. You just can’t go wrong listening to your child. I also listen to my artist archetype, who is into creating and exploring. It is only when I let the shadow side of my Saboteur get in on things, that my work gets harshly and unfairly judged. And dogs have the key to life — live in the moment. At any given moment, we are where we are supposed to be, and it is good. And, someone once said — it is our thoughts that got us to where we are now, and our future thoughts will be where we are tomorrow. For me, loosening up involves letting my divine child work, and staying in the moment.
Artist’s good gift
by Martha Faires, Charlotte, NC, USA
I am very glad to see this post, especially the idea from Bernard Berenson that “art ought to be life-enhancing and not life-deprecating.” I think whatever we do should be “life-enhancing” and so am most pleased when someone says, as one of my viewers did, “Your art makes me happy,” because to give joy or happiness seems the greatest privilege in life. Boethius says in his Consolation of Philosophy that “the good is the end toward which all things tend.” I hope we as artists can see our gift as a means “toward the good.”
by Celeste Gober, Tinton Falls, NJ, USA
So often, you hit the nail on the head, and today is no exception. Dogs, especially when left to their own devices, remind us that life is supposed to be fun. That’s something we adults tend to forget, and it is perhaps one of the reasons we love dogs. Imagine a world where people truly did what they wanted, what made them happy. Imagine if kids could stop going to school if they didn’t enjoy it. New places of learning would be created that were interesting and encouraged freedom, independence, exploration and self discovery. Imagine if each kid’s school experience could be as unique as they are, instead of a mold they are expected to fit in to please parents, teachers, principals, The Board of Education and the requirements of the state of New Jersey. Imagine if parents freed themselves from the belief that a college degree for their kids is a requirement for a happy, fulfilling life. Or that living in an overpopulated, overtaxed area is necessary because of the job they must have that will pay for that college education. Imagine if people created work that gave them joy. And relationships that thrived on freedom to follow your bliss. Imagine if each person took responsibility for creating their own happiness.
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Choose to be joyful
by Abbie Williams, Nobleboro, ME, USA
I really related to your last piece and it came at such an appropriate time to remind me to loosen up during this time of economic woes. I have always been a happy, fun loving and joyful person but life taught me if I wanted to get ahead I would have to focus and get serious. As I have gotten older and more focused I have thought a lot about the subject of Fun and Joy because it seems to be like the holy grail. The more you chase it the more allusive it becomes. Finally I’ve learned fun and joy aren’t “out there somewhere,” they’re within myself and always have been from the beginning of my life. In my painting this translates to creating an attitude that life and painting are fun, therefore I can be joyful, have fun, be a child again and just plain play when I go to the easel. It really is as simple as choosing to be joyful in the face of anything that may be going on in life. I was told by my mentor many years ago that if you paint joyful paintings people will want to buy them to bring that joy into their lives. People don’t buy art, they buy energy, your energy, so be mindful of what energy you are, it will always show up in your paintings. If nothing else, I can have fun painting instead of dragging myself to it like a dreary job. With this economy I can at least have fun making art and who knows maybe some sad soul will be touched by my joy and want to bring it home with them.
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Enjoy the moment
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
To me a serious artist is one who has a serious interest in art. Such a person will focus more intent on the many problems and ideas of the trade, study other artists words and works and always work towards improvement. You can certainly be a very serious hobbyist. ‘Serious’ involves having a passion about something. Serious is not about frowning and being heavy. I believe humor to be a necessary tool in each human being’s tool bag. Richard Pryor, who certainly was a serious comedian, said that “all humor is rooted in pain.” Laughter helped him overcome a very difficult childhood. Laughter makes us healthier and happier and more enjoyable to others. We need to have that joy of a child or a pet to be at our creative best. Being too serious about appearing serious makes us boring, self-absorbed and tiresome and can make our paintings that way as well. Artists often use seriousness as one of their competitive categories. I paint more hours a day than he does and make more money, etc. Why do many artists take this competitive stance anyway? Better to be like the dog in your story. Have fun and enjoy the moment. Life is short and our time precious.
Shedding ourselves of knowledge
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, ON, Canada
There is a book sporting a title that has become my mantra — “Younger Next Year.” While the book is mostly about exercise, my interpretation is that it is crucial and life-enhancing to shed sober seriousness for serious play. As a friend of mine, poet and fabulous artist Richard Lush, puts it, “I am learning to look at life sideways in any light.” No one would dispute that Picasso was a serious artist, yet his goal was to become more like a child. No easy task after well-meaning parents and teachers have succeeded in beating that out of most of us.
My studio is shared with an amazing young portrait artist from the realist school — she is very SERIOUS and takes months to produce a single portrait with painstaking precision. She frowns on rock music and plays classical music. I smile as I write this — don’t get me wrong. I love classical music and realist art. But at more than twice her age, I’m the one that paints to Bon Jovi or the Killers, and produces a fair number of large abstracts in relatively short periods. While she’s intent on becoming a serious portrait artist, I am relishing every moment of having achieved my dream. My realist work is rolled up and stored on the top shelf of the storage unit. Living proof that we spend the first third of our lives learning all the rules and being serious and the next two thirds shedding everything we learned?
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Be happy or not
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA
I totally agree. I can’t remember the author now but sometime when I was much younger someone told me… “Satisfaction is such a minor thing, it is really joy we are after.” After that, I did lighten up because I was aiming much too low if I was aiming at being satisfied. The funniest things change you. I remember as a young single mother watching an AT&T ad on television. In this set Ma Bell was interviewing people over 100. I remember one woman said that each day she had a choice. She could wake up and be happy or not. Life and reality might spoil it on some days but each morning she had another go at it. I thought that made a lot of sense. I practiced that for a whole year. And it works. On a one to ten scale, most of my days are an 8. That isn’t bad.
But your letter was an additional reminder. I realized I was getting way too proud at how HARD I was working. Well, if you concentrate on the HARD well that is what it is going to be, right? So thanks for the reminder and pat that dog for me. I will still work as hard to be sure but the focus will be different going forward. I think I will remember to be very grateful I get to work just this hard.
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
The past summer I have realized that some of my strongest works have come from times that I have been painting consistently, but also from when I am at a level that I am in perfect harmony with my materials, and my own ideas. I have one piece that a good artist friend calls my masterpiece. I think it is largely a matter of taste, but she has brought up some good observations, one is that the brush work was laid down and left right where I put it the first time. It was one of my spontaneous and really fun-to-paint pieces, and therefore, it feels very “spontaneous.” I have realized that one has some very serious work to reach that point however.
by Dyan Law, Pipersville, PA, USA
While conducting my annual workshop in a formal garden in Paris, France, I was aware that a sweet young French girl was strolling around with her sketchbook in hand and she was concentrating on the same beautiful flora and fauna I was. I looked at her drawings and commented “tres jolie.” She didn’t smile, but rather went about her task seriously. As I was painting the scene, she made her way closer to me. Finally she walked up behind my set-up and stood silently watching me paint for a solid 2 hours! Her mom came by also carrying a sketchbook. We attempted to converse briefly. The young daughter observed me painting until her mom beckoned her for the third time. I only managed to get one-half of my painting completed, but this endearing scenario and others like it have influenced my life so much that I continue to appreciate the onlookers and try not to get bothered by their questions and sincere interest in my work… yes, a confirmation that as artists and as fellow men/women, we can relate without barriers, without even the need to speak. We are reminded of love and diversity, the language of art and nature, and above all, that none of us are above all!
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 Mary Carnahan of Front Royal, VA, USA, who wrote, “Life is plenty serious on its own. I think it’s imperative to take advantage of opportunities to lighten up. It has certainly given me more resources to draw on during the heavier moments. Thanks for these wonderful letters, by the way.”
And also Elsa Bluethner of Sunshine Hills, BC, Canada, who wrote, “An artist should only take his work seriously and not himself.”
And also Kristina Zallinger who wrote, “I am the dog. Playfully I toss the ball into the air and generally catch it. For me, art is a serious business, but not too serious and not necessarily a business. No Sunday painter here; 7 days a week. When I’m not painting, I’m thinking about it, seeing the juxtaposition of colors in ordinary things. Getting excited with what I am working on now. I am the dog.”
And also Gale Nash of NC, USA, who wrote, “‘Serious artist’ is an oxymoron.”
And also Ron Grauer of Ben Lomond, CA, USA, who wrote, “I love dogs, especially serious ones. I’ve painted a few that I call by that name but I seriously keep them out of sight.”
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