Dear Artist,

“What a bitter struggle is waged between talent and fate,” wrote Nguyen Du, author of The Tale of Kieu, the most revered saga in Vietnamese literature. So important is the 3,254-verse epic poem that most children in Vietnam know much of it by heart. Written in 1820, it’s the story of a young girl whose beauty is her principal talent but who suffers one miserable setback after the other. Finally, she is forced to sell herself. The Vietnamese take the story to be a metaphor for their country — beautiful but doomed. “When one is endowed with talent,” goes the moral, “one cannot depend on it.”

On first examination, this idea holds both spirituality and beauty.

Talent is often thought of as those sorts of gifts we are born with — blessings like beauty and brains — or as abilities to be developed, such as drawing, painting or musicianship. One thing’s for sure: having talent doesn’t mean you’re fated to make it work for you. Like a flower blooming in a desert, talent can be unseen and unappreciated.

The development of talent takes fertile ground and dedicated application. Individualism — even eccentricity — is the key to invention and creative evolution. In societies that revere fate, talent is stifled. Like the proverbial nail that sticks out, talent gets hammered down.

Where ideology lingers and opportunities are limited, fate becomes a dominant power. Here in Vietnam the annual income is $500. Unemployment is high. In the countryside, there are few telephones or television sets. Public information and patriotic music are broadcast on the streets and across the fields. Transportation is by foot or bicycle. Sanitation is primitive. Barefoot young women — programmed rice-transplanting machines — stoop knee-deep in flooded paddies. The passing water buffalo driver looks with benign apathy at the peculiar foreigner and wonders “why?”

For those talented ones in any culture who are fated with some degree of freedom from everyday toil, there can be little excuse.

Best regards,


PS: “Good fortune seldom came the way,

Of those endowed, they say,

With genius and a dainty face,

What tragedies take place.” (Nguyen Du, from The Tale of Kieu)

Esoterica: I’m laptopping you from noisy Ly Thuong Kiet Street in downtown Hanoi. Thousands of motorbikes pass here every hour, their stoic drivers masked against the bluish pollution that lends to an ethereal perspective in all directions. They move steadily, toot frequently and pay scant attention to the occasional traffic lights. The system works remarkably well. “Don’t do anything eccentric or quick,” shouts our guide as we step out into traffic. “Move slowly and with others as if flowing in a river — the waters will part for you.”


Tragically beautiful place
by Julie Nilsson, Ft. Collins, DC, USA


“Vietnamese market”
oil painting
by Julie Nilsson

Will you be “fated” to paint there while in that tragically beautiful place? I marvel at their floating farmer’s markets and at their pride and perseverance. I will add the Tale of Kieu to my must read list. Thich Nhat Hahn of that country, is one of my favorite poets and writers. His gifted fate bloomed in an otherwise doomed historical backdrop. I admire him very much. I hope you will have the chance to paint some Vietnam street scenes, waterways or rice paddies…

There is 1 comment for Tragically beautiful place by Julie Nilsson

From: Penny Collins — Feb 05, 2009

Hi Julie, I love your painting. Beautiful mix of bright and neutral colours, fantastic composition, interesting repetition of the boaters going in different directions. Just lovely :)


Support for talent
by Dyane Brown, Nanaimo, BC, Canada

My impressions of Vietnam were different. It impressed me that in Saigon, children’s art was beautifully framed and displayed. At the zoo, there was a show of pictures elementary children had painted of the animals. Each was in a gilt frame on an easel. It shows respect for children. That impressed me. In the war museum, children’s paintings were bright, illustrative and moving. I brought home a book from the art gallery in Saigon showing a diverse and amazing selection of contemporary art from a recent exhibit. It appeared to me that the work of talented people was encouraged and supported.


Never go backwards
by Kathy Hirsh, Beijing, China


“Boracay beach”
pastel painting
by Kathy Hirsh

I was crossing the street a few years ago in Hanoi with the 12 year old daughter of a Dutch friend. We were in the middle of traffic and I started to chicken out and back up. As an experienced Hanoi dweller, she admonished me “NEVER go backwards once you’re in the street.” So we forged on and across. On a similar note, I lived in Kathmandu for 5 years and drove every day. The traffic there was much the same as Vietnam, but with the occasional elephant and frequent feral (and holy) cow. I think that in 5 years I used my rear view mirror about 3 times. Same principle, just move slowly and merge, the traffic will accommodate you.


There is 1 comment for Never go backwards by Kathy Hirsh

From: Merrill Freed — Feb 21, 2009

I just returned from Phnom Penh,Cambodia and found the traffic there to be similar. Stay together and don’t make any fast moves crossing the street! I was surprised at how safe I felt in a tuk-tuk in spite of all the vehicles on the road. No one wants an accident so the speed is not very fast.


Talent needs work
by Martha Markowski


oil painting
by Martha Markowski

I agree, talent must be worked, cannot be left dormant. It is not an automatic function. One rule or recipe I have learned in the beginning of my career and have applied it ever since and have seen the results, is this: “Success consists of 99 percent work and 1 percent talent.”



There is 1 comment for Talent needs work by Martha Markowski

From: Edna Waller — Feb 08, 2009

What a gorgeous painting! I don’t know what it is, but something about it moves me.


What is talent?
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


original painting
by Peter Brown

In my years of teaching, I have met just a couple of kids that had “talent.” I have met many kids that can learn art skills. Having spent my life in the art field, I am not really sure that I have any real talent. If I have a gift, I suppose it is about color, and I am not sure about that. I can teach anybody how to draw and that is what I teach to my high school art students. Color is a whole new deal. It is a mystery. What is talent?



There is 1 comment for What is talent? by Peter Brown

From: Liz Reday — Feb 09, 2009

Nice painting! What size is it? Oil on canvas? You have a gift for more than color, your painting has a wonderful eccentric original look to it, I’d love to hear the story….


Talent from forefathers
by Barbara Boldt, Glen Valley, BC, Canada


“Evening Calm”
oil painting
by Barbara Boldt

When I talk to my students, who feel that their talent is commendable, I quote the German poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: “That which you have inherited from your forefathers, use it in order to possess it!”

My current exhibit in the Langley Centennial Exhibition Centre’s features these key words above to lead you into: Barbara Boldt – The Journey.

The exhibit talks and commences with my forefathers and their multiple talents of which I have inherited some. We have to work and use the talent, otherwise it is wasted.

There is 1 comment for Talent from forefathers by Barbara Boldt

From: Hugo — Feb 06, 2009

The way I translate it its more like: “What you inherit from your fathers, earn it before you can own it”. In any case, I like it too.


Nothing comes easy
by Geri Acosta, Tucson, AZ, USA


“Fallen cherries”
oil painting
by Geri Acosta

I couldn’t help remembering how true this is by attending my first high school class reunion way back when and seeing the “pretty/popular/elite crowd” all come tumbling down off their pedestals into places in society beneath their “potential.” It was an example of what comes easy is not enough, but is often a handicap. Thank you… from one who has learned that nothing comes easy…


There is 1 comment for Nothing comes easy by Geri Acosta

From: Catherine — Feb 07, 2009

Geri, Your painting is stunning !!


Worth the toil
by Louise Francke, NC, USA


“Check mate”
original painting
by Louise Francke

An old Dutch sculptor, a descendant of sculptors who toiled creating the Cologne Cathedral, told me when I was 19 and working in his garage studio, “Being an artist is 1 percent talent and 99 percent hard work.”

As the years pass, I realize how tough it has been to stay true to one’s self all in the name of “art.” Few of us ever reach the stratosphere price-wise but yet we keep creating because that’s what we do best. Each and every work is a journey and demonstration of time, effort, imagination and talent best used. Personally, my talent has allowed me to share my joy and humor with others. If 1% talent can make people smile, it is worth the toil.


Wasted talent
by Louise Cass, Toronto, ON, Canada


Louise Cass

What is ‘Talent’? I believe that in the Western world talent is thought of as a kind of innate ability to do something — usually in the realm of performance and plastic arts but one can also have a ‘knack’ with figures (mathematics) or be ‘talented’ in an approach to science, etc. This ‘talent’ usually, but not always, shows itself at an early age. We speak of people wasting their ‘god-given’ talents through lack of direction, application and/or dedication. In Art many achieve success through another kind of talent such as a gift for the ability to promote themselves along with the determination and hard work necessary for this goal. It seems quite extraordinary for ‘beauty’ alone to be considered a talent in another society. We generally consider it an attribute rather than a talent as one doesn’t have to work at it (some might not agree with this)! However, I can see that in some sense it’s similar to our notion of talent — it’s just there — seemingly arriving out of nowhere!

From the letters of Hippolyte Flandrin, who, along with his brother Paul, succeeded in their chosen fields of religious and landscape painting in mid-19th century Paris, probably more through hard work and determination than intrinsic talent, this amusing comment on women artists comes: “Those who scoff at feminine talent can never know how many women, who have taken up art seriously, women of genuine and remarkable talent, have been discouraged and their talents wasted through a vicious or incomplete education.” It seems that women were not admitted to the School of Fine Arts in Paris at the time although they could attend the School of Medicine.

— see Delaborde, H. (ed) “Lettres et Pensées d’Hippolyte Flandrin”, 2 vols, Paris 1865.

There is 1 comment for Wasted talent by Louise Cass

From: Janet Best Badger — Feb 06, 2009

The comment you quoted was far from “amusing.” More like tragic. And still true…how many of us have been told there is no future in our art career, we should get a “real job” ?


Look a little deeper
by Terry Mason, Sarasota, FL, USA


“Philippi creek”
original painting
by Terry Mason

On my wall in my living room hangs a huge photograph by Vietnam’s most favored photographer. My brother is a diplomat and was one of the people who opened the embassies in Vietnam a few years back. The huge beautiful photograph pictures one of the remarkable women who RUN the silver industries that exist along the Cambodian borders. On my walls are intricate silver pieces done by craftswomen in northern Vietnam.

Get out of the cafe and away from the motorcycles. Yes, the government is a big bad boot. Yes, the country continues to struggle with the terrible oppression of the big boot. But look at the lovely people there and you will find real beauty, art that flourishes anyway, and as always, the artist continues to flourish in the needlework, in the native crafts, and even in the modern photography.

Scientists and artists, I think, are a bit impervious to politics. I am always amused by the story of cholesterol. During WW2 the heart attack levels in the Hitler occupied countries were cut in half within mere months. How did this happen? Scientists rushed overseas as soon as travel was prudent. What they discovered was that Hitler took every bit of fat out of the country as it is a critical ingredient of nitroglycerin that is key in bomb making. Once the cream and meat entered back into these dairy nations the heart attacks went right back up. Scientists wanted to prove the link and that is how the Framingham Heart Study was conceived. Despite the oppression there was curiosity. Despite the politics there was creativity in science. And in Germany during the same time Emil Nolde painted tiny watercolors and hid them in his woodpile.

Never doubt that art will out. Never doubt that science will out. Indeed, in every culture it is what always lasts. Dig a little deeper into the beautiful Vietnam. I know the traffic is horrendous and the pollution awful is well. Look deeper. Find the art.


Creative rust and discouragement
by Steve Taylor, MO, USA

“For those talented ones in any culture who are fated with some degree of freedom from everyday toil, there can be little excuse.” But there may be several major reasons. One is the problem of the seed falling on barren soil. There was no welcoming of the arts in my childhood environment, except for my parents who encouraged “band.” Were I not encouraged (and required) by them, any kind of talent would be an undiscovered trait. Then that small talent fell into a school system where art teachers supervised colorful recess instead of teaching, the nearest music lesson was ten miles away, the local culture was factories and football, and the nearest center of culture was 50 miles away. As an adult, the daily rice paddy was job, home, sick children and cars, and then aging parents.

So for 40 years, I had “little excuse” in a nation that prided itself on having quality education and leisure time — chuckle. Finally, in retirement, the creative drive that hadn’t been extinguished or withered was able to grow. Tapestry weaving called me, and without the Internet, it would have withered, too. There were no tapestry artists or instruction within 100 miles, no books in the library and few avenues for learning. I had found barren soil again, but now had some resources to buy fertilizer.

I’m no major talent that was wasted, nor genius that was lost, but at retirement age, I was starting again from scratch. Only now I had 40 years of creative rust and discouragement to aid me. In the time left to me I will probably become a “talented hobbyist,” but where might it have gone without the lost years?

There are 2 comments for Creative rust and discouragement by Steve Taylor

From: Janet Best Badger — Feb 06, 2009

Thank you for answering Bob’s rather cold and judgemental statement.

And enjoy creating your tapestries! Don’t mourn the water under the bridge, flow on!

From: Leigh Jackson — Feb 06, 2009

Another reason for undeveloped talent: health challenges left undiagnosed and untreated due to lack of recognition and misdiagnoses of our health system while having a lack of, or little, personal funds for alternative health. This leaves one having to spend many long, frustrating, heart-breaking years, focused on earning a living with only part time employability. Where then is the time for artistic development? And please don’t give me that mind/body come back I’ve heard so often… environmental toxic affronts have nothing to do with this and harm the most sensitive of us first (artists).


Art for beauty
by MaryLou Thompson, Tucson, AZ, USA

“Like a flower blooming in the desert, BEAUTY can be unseen and unappreciated.” I live in the desert in Tucson and ‘desert flowers’ are the most beautiful, strong, waxy, brilliantly-colored and most appreciated SINGLE flowers I have ever seen. We even have the Night Blooming Cyrus which you can only see in the dark taking the effort to stay awake and use a flash light to see these amazing flowers. Perhaps it is WE who LOOK and WE who JUDGE what we see that bring the possibility of seeing beauty from within ourselves. In creating art in any form we choose to create beauty or to create some thing ugly — what is it that WE chose to spread in our open world full of influences that we contribute to personally. When I open my art gallery in Tucson, it will be filled with art that allows/helps one see the beauty within.




Crested Butte

oil painting
by Ann Hardy, TX, USA


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 Paul Hough who wrote, “The last guy who had rivers parting was wearing long white robes and was here about 2009 years ago. Have you been keeping something from us?”

And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg, VA, USA, who wrote, “God has given each man a talent and it would be a sin not to use it for the glory of God, not for man only himself. I am sure that it is interesting and beautiful where you are now at, but in 1971 I almost had to go there for a much different reason than yours for being there. Thank God I failed the physical!”

And also Kathleen Watson who wrote, “On my studio wall I have a formula: practise and interest equals talent. I don’t know where this originates from but it reminds me to maintain good work habits and to keep the interest alive by staying challenged.”

And also John Burk of Timonium, MD, USA, who wrote, “Yikes! While this goes against the grain in a mind steeped in ‘merit succeeds,’ it certainly rings true in my experience. There is much to learn beyond the much that was thought important to learn.”

And also Nancy Cook of Trappe, MD, USA who wrote, “My Grandmother said to me that your Talent is your first Birthday Present, given to you to develop. When you die, God’s going to ask you what you did with it for the world’s good, and you better have a good answer. She also said some of us know what our talent is right away, and the rest of us spend our lives looking for it.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Talent



From: Kelly Mallory — Feb 03, 2009

Glenn “The drive is the talent” What a sad but enlightening commentary on a whole culture, one that bases its life and future on “fate”. It is true; “Where the one true God is not worshipped there is poverty, misery and filth”. All this to say, I do not believe in fate but in the Sovereignty of God, Who is good and Who has a plan for my life. Yes, i love to paint and by work and in struction, I am improving. I am thankful for that irresistible draw to the palatte and canvas, but I have to pick up the brush.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Feb 03, 2009

We ‘Westerners’ generally have little appreciation in our material wealth. A very large percent of humans live on only one, or two dollars a day, Asia, Africa, South America. The artists that come from these poor, by most standards, places, are truely gifted and born artists.

I think it was George Washington who said that we could live so very well if it took only half of the people to produce all the food for everyone, and so freeing the other half to produce luxuries for the rest of us. Like furniture

From: Rick Rotante — Feb 03, 2009

If their fate is such, much talent will go unsung.

From: Gene Martin — Feb 03, 2009

I once had a teacher who said, “With talent comes responsibility”. My own thoughts here: Yes responsibility to the God given talent. Responsibility to your craft, responsiblility to learn as much about your materials as possible and responsibility to produce the best art you can. And last, but far from least, you are responsible for your actions and your life.

From: Mike G Gold Coast — Feb 03, 2009

At age 52 I have written my first musical. I take heart from Bryce Courtenay who wrote his first novel at 52. He gave himself permission as do I. What is fate ? What happens next.

Thankyou for your continually enlightening column

From: Bob — Feb 03, 2009

My dictionary defines talent as “a special aptitude or faculty, exceptional skill or ability”. I fail to see how that can be equated with being born beautiful.

From: Joyce Goden — Feb 04, 2009
From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Feb 04, 2009

I had the same thought as Bob, but now I realize that as we communicate globally, we will have to stop relying so much on our dictionaries. Various cultures have different interpretations of terminology. I find it very interesting that being born with good looks and being born with good muscles or brain or nerve system is treated differently in western cultures while it can be argued that it all comes from genes – so technically it could all be considered a talent.

From: Lynda Hartwell — Feb 04, 2009

Talent seems a weak and diluted word. Talent brings to mind a simple ability, like a talent for spotting a good bargain at a flea market, or a talent at counting how many trump cards have been played in a hand of bridge. How about a talent in a beauty pageant? A gift, on the other hand, is a God-given bestowal that will rise up from within an individual and make itself manifest, regardless of whether the ground is fertile or barren. Mozart comes to mind, and Beethoven, driven to compose even during profound deafness. I don’t agree that individualism and eccentricity are necessarily keys “to invention and creative evolution.” I think the true key is to push one’s ego aside, and listen to one’s inner voice – or God voice as I like to call it – and follow where that leads you. By the way, is laptopping a new verb?

From: John Padgett — Feb 04, 2009

This letter reminds me of Joe Paterno, the Penn State coach’s, quote “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”

From: Mary Jane Cooke — Feb 04, 2009

Could it be that the talented and gifted are a minority who incur the jealousy of the majority of people in this world who are “average” and just can’t stand or recognize anyone else to be “gifted.” Maybe it takes a gifted person to recognize another gifted person. Maybe the sponsors of the great artist in Medieval times, etc., were themselves well above “average” (I.Q., talent) themselves.

From: Susan Erickson — Feb 04, 2009

Thank you for the story from Vietnam. I would like to hear more description, but perhaps I will have to wait to see it in your paintings. As for the talent question, if we think about it too much it will drive us mad. The tortoise and the hare reveal that hard work, hope, and determination trump natural born talent (in our western way of thinking).

From: Ruth Baize — Feb 04, 2009

“Don’t do anything eccentric or quick,” shouts our guide as we step out into traffic. “Move slowly and with others as if flowing in a river — the waters will part for you.” This quote speaks deeply to Life. My problem is that I do not move slowly, nor do I desire to. I’ve got things to do; people to see; and places to go.

From: Rick Rotante — Feb 05, 2009

Dare I say we all have talent? Each of us possesses a talent in an area that may not get too much attention in the world. An example may be a talent at driving for sixty years and not having an accident or raising several children who turn out well in anonymous obscurity but happy. Ditch digger, Policeman. I think it sad that we only value those things that call attention. Unfortunately, Artist is one of them. Millionaire is another. Making lots of money takes talent. How about a talent at being happy and seeing the good in others…. Oh! Sorry, not worthy enough – can’t cash in on happiness. Running a business. The list can go on and on but we will rarely applaud someone with these talents. My folks were immigrants who came here, thrived, raised two boys, kept food on the table, put us through school and watched us get married and (one) have children of his own. Too mundane to be considered a talent.

Our worldview is skewed to one side or the other when discussing true talent. In America, where money is king, any show of “talent” to make it, in whatever endeavor, is applauded.

I guess it was always like this. If one is successful one can be thought to have a talent for success. Just no one appreciates it unless it gets on television.

From: Toby Tover-Krein — Feb 05, 2009

What a beautiful letter from an incredible country. I was fortunate to spend almost 3 weeks in Vietnam about 3 years ago…and you are there during Tet. It’s a real test of courage to walk across the streets in traffic in Hanoi but you must remember DON’T STOP …JUST KEEP ON WALKING and they won’t hit you. That’s a metaphor for what we must do in this economy…we must “keep on keepin’ on” and we will get to where we want to be.

From: Julie Roberts — Feb 05, 2009

Thank you, Joyce, for those beautiful You Tube videos of Hanoi!

From: Grace Nichols — Feb 06, 2009

Our experience is in some ways like a river. If you are swimming, you are learning and using your talents. You are not wasting anything. But you may not have a series of coherent oil paintings to show for it when, with great happiness, you find yourself clambering aboard a boat somewhere.

Nothing is wasted. And the consciousness that is born of that “inartistic period” has a lot of richness to give the world.

From: Brad Greek — Feb 06, 2009

I’ve often felt that we have to realize what talents that we were given and pursue them. Not just for ourselves but for others. Not for the money or glory but to share, with the world, our talents to better mankind.

From: George Walker — Feb 06, 2009

Talent is the good stuff you are given at birth and if beauty is a talent it can be ruined when a beautiful child later acts ugly.

From: Jim Hooser — Feb 06, 2009

Talent is a condition that needs further work to perfect.

From: Nicholas Neil — Feb 06, 2009

Talent is what others have and I don’t.

From: Brigitte Nowak — Feb 06, 2009

To Nicholas Neil, if you have no talent, then you must use what is available to you: hard work, determination, a vision, planning, whatever, to achieve that which you desire.

From: Suzanne Kinstle Nocera — Feb 06, 2009

All humans are born with a gift of creativity. Creativity isn’t exclusive to artists. Talent is the will and perseverence to grow your gift into full bloom.

From: Bill — Feb 09, 2009

Suzanne Kinstle Nocera, you obviously haven’t met my boss ;-)

From: Liz Reday — Feb 09, 2009

The comment about where there is not one true god followed there is poverty, misery and filth. Well, I can think of a few places that worship what they consider their one true god and the rest of the world infidels. There’s a lot of one true god stuff going around which causes book burning, intolerance and not a lot of enlightened individuals making their own eccentric art. Also, I have a hard time with concepts of paternalistic male gods ordering the rest of us around with their own male rules. Viet Nam practices, what, Buddhism? That’s a religion that I have a lot of time for, and I don’t think it causes poverty, misery and filth. And poverty can be in the mind set of our comfortable Western stuff-obsessed society. Travelling to other countries enables us to partake of other viewpoints and opens our minds to the beauty in all things. The people may be poor, but perhaps they have a wealth of a different kind, tranquility and pleasure in simple things. Who are we to say they live in poverty, misery and filth because they don’t worship someone elses idea of god?

From: Mars — Feb 18, 2009

Talent is or isn’t– it can also be learned–but then–I find my drawings are excellent– but when it comes to paint–had to learn-how to apply it– no problems with color harmony–but stroke by stroke-how much paint to apply–etc. When one thinks about it all-art– it’s all copied–not so– you look a t the object & copy what U see!!! so what exactly is talent??? In music it’s simple- either U have a voice for singing or not– or U have the talent to play instruments- can also be learned– but sometimes the talent isn’t there!!!



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