Sarah Sibley of Rattlesden, Suffolk, UK wrote yesterday and asked, “I was just wondering if you consider yourself and other artists ‘special’ compared to everyone else. I’m sixteen years old and coming to grips with being an artistic person. It’s almost scary in a way because I can relate to so much of what you write about. I also wondered if you believe yourself to be a chosen person to be the way you are. This probably sounds silly but some people believe that being an artist is the result of analyzing things. Others seem to believe it’s their fate and something they were born with. What do you think?”
For young and old alike, there are a bundle of good questions here. Yes, Sarah, we’re all special. Not because we’re artists, but because we’re human. It seems to me that our job is to figure out what we’re good for, and then go for it. We’re not chosen either. There are no chosen people. We choose to choose ourselves. With all the various pressures — especially on young people — the making of choices sometimes takes a while. I was about your age when I started to “come to grips with being an artistic person.” You too may have been born with apparent talent, but talent is a thread that often breaks. And yes, analysis — I call it curiosity — is the force that powers artists, and lots of other people as well. True curiosity is commonplace in children and is often repressed in the teen years, only to be recaptured and bloom in the later lives of some. Curiosity is dug out of your child and re-enacted in adulthood to the glory of civilizations. Those who work at it become blessed with the habit. It’s the artist’s way. But it also makes inventors, writers, composers, directors, entrepreneurs, chefs, lovers and other evolved beings. None are above others in the pantheon. But sometimes it feels like it.
PS: “There is no mystery about art. Do the things that you can see; they will show you those that you cannot see. By doing what you can you will gradually get to know what it is that you want to do and cannot do, and so be able to do it.” (Samuel Butler)
Esoterica: Another thing — it requires a shot of desire and passion. You have to want to do it. Do not allow yourself to become suspicious, fearful or jaded — be open to both the burden and the joy. “I want to cultivate the seed that was placed in me until the last small twig has grown.” (Kathe Kollwitz)
The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.
Following another’s choice
by Stephanie Theng
I just graduated with a Bachelor’s in Political Science, minors in Psychology and Business last week. Throughout my years in university, I have changed majors several times. Even after I’ve graduated, I feel that I have not done my artistic talent any justice. In fact, the past several years, not only have I drifted further, partly because of fear and lack of job opportunities, I have also succumbed to family and societal pressure by going in the direction of what they would like to see. So, I wonder now, I have changed ‘tunes’ so many times over the course of my academic years. Should I just go along with the flow? Is there a case of having too many talents, so that one can get confused over what to pursue? And can talents be stunted because of a fear of developing them? I have read books about the importance of finding one’s authentic self. But it really can be difficult to go against people’s expectations. As a Chinese returning to live in an Asian society, I feel the pressure to be conventional more so because I grew up reading about obedience and filial piety. I feel the pressure of getting into commerce, just like most people my race and with all our stereotypes, but I don’t want to sell myself out! I have been fortunate that I was allowed to major in what I did in university, but I’ve graduated now, and now is the time to choose the career I want to be in. There’s a feeling that it’s not close to what I want to do, which is art, and I am upset at myself because I feel that I have been cheating and disappointing everyone, and worst of all, myself.
(RG note) This is a story as old as art itself. To some degree, all of us, at many times in our lives, ask “what if?” Here’s my solution: Give lip service to the career you know you have in your hand. Prepare and set aside a period of about six months and try the career you think you are passionate about. Do it earlier rather than later. Tell your loved ones what it is you’re going to do and ask for their understanding. Give it all you’ve got. You may find out that you are not cut out for it. You may not make the kind of progress you thought possible, but you will still have won, because you will be confirmed that the more traveled and ordinary road is the one for you. And you may find the less traveled road is all and more of what you might have dreamed.
by Claude Courvoisier
I too believe there are no “chosen people” but I would be interested to know what a religious person might think of the idea. Sometimes I ask myself if I am normal, so now thanks to you I know I have just the “artist spirit”. The notion of “fate” is a superstitious belief but very enticing. I buy that one because I think we are predestined in the way that we have no control on the events in our life. We have only control on the way we react to it. Disraeli said; “A lot of people die with their music still in them”. We owe ourselves to let our music sing and take the appropriate steps to find out, like you say, what we are good for and do it. I find your answer inspiring and true. But I’m curious about “but talent is a thread that often breaks.” Please elaborate.
(RG note) Nowadays “talent” involves keeping a lot of plates in the air at the same time. I don’t know about you, but I’ve started to drop a few.
by Bill Cannon, California, USA
It is a lifetime effort to come to grips with being an artistic person. You’ll recall that Jackson Pollock‘s mother told him, at the height of his success when he was lauded by Life Magazine and Clement Greenberg as the artist of the century, she still thought his brother was the better artist in the family. That sent him on a drunken tailspin. I’ll never forget that story because you can receive the applause of the world and yet you will get none from your own family. Luckily I have a wife who applauds me no matter what.
We are blessed
by John Adkins
I disagree with Robert on this one. Yes, we are no different than anyone else. We are not chosen to be artists. And yes, we are artists because we choose to create. But, Robert, artists are special. I often read an artist’s biography and find that he or she says that they are self-taught. I assume that we are all self-taught. We do not learn how and what to create by being taught. Ultimately we rely on a spirit from within ourselves to guide us. That “art spirit” is what gives us the will and the ability to create. I believe that part of this creativity is inherited and part is life experiences. I grew up in an environment of creative energy. My grandmothers both did wonderful needle work, quilts, embroidery, and crochet work. My father and grandfather were carpenters who built beautiful things from wood. In this environment I learned that you can use what you have and create items of beauty and value. Yes, art is something I was born with. Born with the advantage that parents who know you can do anything you set your mind to can give a young person. They praised me and encouraged me in my early attempts at painting. My father still says he liked my early paintings best, before I became educated. Growing up, I did not know anyone who painted. I did not know anyone who owned an oil painting, let along anyone that might buy one. In this environment I became an oil painter. I have been going through a process of evolution for the last 30 years to become the artist I am today. Artists are special. Just think, of all the billions of people that have ever lived — only a few took the time to put down on stone, paper or canvas the world as they saw it. That is what makes artists special, the fact that they try to record the world as they see it. A wise man once said to me, ” You’re an artist? Good! Remember nothing survives but art and poetry. Civilizations are defined by their art and the written word.” Yes, Robert we are truly blessed to be artists!
by Charlie Hankin
The idea that we “choose” to be visual artists is very strange. Are we led to paint or draw by how well we hear or spell or read? Are we led to sculpt by our ability to memorize the multiplication tables? The educational system in the USA rewards the ability to master reading, writing, and arithmetic. We have school bands and teach music as a way to process sound in a group. Visual art is either “arts and crafts” or some strange anti-something or a pretty picture in a mall print-store. Has anyone ever asked you if you could see? The NEA in America listed painters, sculptors and other visual artists as those who work with their hands. Why not eyes or brains? We may choose with free will to be artists but we have no choice in the ability to see.
Gift of desire
by Melanie Murphy
I think the gift given to artists is desire. Everything else is born of that.
by Diane Voyentzie, Connecticut, USA
I saw Maurice Sendak yesterday on television discussing his career, Where the Wild Things are among many other books and illustrations. He said he NEVER analyzes his work, and tries not to think about it. It is fragile, and may retreat if he thinks about where it comes from. I am of the same opinion. I am so thankful each time ANYTHING works out, and that just seems to make it flow more.
by Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, Oregon, USA
“I wish I had your talent.” How many times have I heard that over my shoulder while painting? Without missing a brush stroke, I usually respond with something like, “What is talent? My talent is all the hard work that I have done up to this point. My first serious attempts to paint showed no talent.” The other comment I commonly hear is, “I wish I could paint, but I can’t draw a straight line.” My response is. “I can’t draw a straight line, either.”
More than what I do
by Gaye Adams, Sorrento, BC, Canada
There is a saying that goes “When you are what you do, then when you don’t you’re not.” Sometimes an artist gets a lot of attention and accolades, and we begin to wrap up our self-esteem in what we do, largely encouraged by those around us. I find this true particularly of art students. They regard those who paint well with a particular awe, as if an artist was a magical being. It’s good to remind ourselves that everyone excels at something, no one more important than another. A person can be a world famous whatever, and still be small inside. We need to learn to be large, whatever we do in this life. This last few months I have had a dry spell… it seems that two out of three paintings I start don’t turn out well. It has been quite difficult to deal with and I have had to remind myself that I am more than what I do. If tomorrow for some reason, I were no longer able to paint, how would I feel about myself? Although I am grateful I can paint, I am far more than just what I do. We all are.
Tap into it
by Bobbi Snope, Coeurd’Alene, Idaho, USA
It is my experience that there is a “river of creativity” that is always flowing and each of us has our own way to tap into it and let it flow onto our paper, canvas, project, life, etc. What makes us special, different or seemingly chosen is that we choose to do that. What an impressive young woman you are, Miss Sarah Sibley.
by Anne O’Connor
It was very odd to read Sara’s words in your letter this morning after watching a student production of The Seagull by Anton Chekov last evening. Am I in the play? Did I really have a good night’s sleep? The young woman, Nina expresses sentiments about the loftiness of the artistic life. Pursuing success and the famous proves to be the downfall of the young people in the story because they lose sight of developing their individual talents. Comparison and competition with others has the potential to be so destructive in our relationships and work. I take my bow.
Painter’s Keys Gallery IV
(RG note) Thanks so much for all the wonderful images. My assistant Therese Lewis, my daughter Sara Genn and I chose these ones as “exemplary.” They are in no particular order. Thank you for the variety, the quality and the sharing. Please feel free to send more at any time. We are looking at every single one.
Personification of process
by Liesbeth Groenewald Winterton, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
To me this poem personifies the process of painting. I only wish that it were possible to paint the ‘freshness of the wind’ or the ‘heat of summer’ for myself or a spectator to experience in reality. Oh well, that might be possible in the future perhaps.
How to Paint a Portrait of a Bird by Jacques Prevert
First paint a cage with an open door
then paint something pretty
something simple something fine
something useful for the bird.
Next place the canvas against a tree
in a garden in a wood
or in a forest.
Hide behind the tree without speaking
Sometimes the bird comes quickly
but it can also take many years
before making up its mind.
Don’t be discouraged
wait if necessary for years
the quickness or slowness of the coming
of the bird having no relation
to the success of the picture.
When the bird comes
if it comes
observe the deepest silence.
Wait for the bird to enter the cage
and when it has entered
gently close the door with the paint-brush.
one by one paint out all the bars
taking care not to touch one feather of the bird.
Next make the portrait of the tree
choosing the finest of its branches for the bird
paint also the green leaves and the freshness of the wind
dust in the sun and the sound of the grazing cattle in the heat of summer
and wait for the bird to decide to sing.
If the bird does not sing
it is a bad sign, a sign that the picture is bad
But, if it sings it is a good sign
So then you pluck very gently one of the quills of the bird
and you write your name in the corner of the picture.
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