Unresolved tension


Dear Artist,

It’s good to know there’s a difference of opinion. A little while ago I wrote about the value of yoga and meditation. A dozen artists wrote to say they couldn’t be less interested in the subject. They told me that they preferred facts and tips they could actually use. Another time I wrote about some practical methods for dealing with art dealers. A dozen artists wrote to say they couldn’t be less interested in the commercial side of art. It seems they wanted to hear about more spiritual concerns.

In my last letter I wrote that a state of well being was vital to the creative process. That day I received the following from a subscriber of Austin, Texas: “A lot of good work is done on the basis of unresolved tension from any number of sources — competition, anger, financial need, deadlines, sexual frustration. Anxiety is not a pathological state, but a normally recurring survival response in our species. Truth is we don’t necessarily want to live in a state of unresolved tension, so the key is to identify the source and be able to tap into it when necessary. Naming it and painting it often serves to defuse the nightmare.”

Thanks for that writer. Let’s talk about sexual frustration. Picasso, who was known for sexual dysfunction and ego-based “serve me” relationships, was reported to have said, “I put my orgasms on canvas.” We might conclude from reading the various biographies by ex-wives, etc, that Picasso was “inadequate,” and this might explain his prodigious creative volume and spectacular variety. The ultimate sublimation, you might say. Perhaps others among us have been blessed with a similar short-changing. This, of course, does not apply to myself. Too bad. She has a good point: If she’s right, some of these situations might be well worth trying to achieve: Daunting competition, chronic anger, bank overdrafts, impossible deadlines, and enforced celibacy.


by Pablo Picasso

Go for it.

Best regards,


PS: “People need trouble — a little frustration to sharpen the spirit and toughen it. Artists do; I don’t mean you need to live in a rat hole or gutter, but you have to learn fortitude, endurance. Only vegetables are happy.” (William Faulkner) “A balanced human seldom produces art.” (Beverly Pepper)

Esoterica: The misery scenario is a relatively recent phenomenon. Romanticized lives of suffering artists such as Gauguin and Van Gogh have fired the public’s imagination. People love to see an artist suffer. It seems to be now part of the mystique. It’s been my observation that there are three main types of artists: genuine sufferers, genuine non-sufferers, and suffering pretenders.

The following are selected correspondence arising from the above letter. Thanks for writing.


Passionate discomfort
by Jane Champagne, Southhampton, Ontario, Canada

What a hoot! Suffering pretenders, or was it pretending sufferers? I’ve met a few, some who even manufacture suffering if there doesn’t happen to be any around. I’ve done some of my best work when really angry, frustrated, pressured, uncomfortable, downright miserable (as in John Bennett’s “Theory of Discomfort,” the more uncomfortable you are, the better you paint). And when I’m happy as the proverbial clam, elated, joyous. Often, the emotion — the passion, actually — is transmuted during the act of painting from rage to euphoria. Once, in a state of miserable frustration at my inability to paint what I wanted to, I talked to Brian Atyeo, who said, “It doesn’t matter what the emotion is so long as it’s PASSIONATE!” So that’s the way it is with artists: if the emotion is strong enough, so is the painting. Orgasmic painting? I think, if truth be told, we all know what that is.


Married to the Blues
by Frank Sant’Agata, Kerrville, TX, USA


painting by Frank Sant’Agata

This letter immediately reminded me of the Harry Chapin Song about the “Old Blues Man.” Although it refers to music, one can easily substitute a particular style of art and alter the words. The philosophy remains Frank the same. An eager, somewhat naive white boy wanted to learn to play the Blues, and left medical school in pursuit of a legendary old blind African-American musician in the south. When he finally located him, the old man gave him the following advice: “To play the Blues boy, you’ve got to live ’em; got your dues boy, you know you’ve got to give em. Got to start sweet with a slow blues rhythm, like a heart-beat, you’ll always be with ’em. When your married to the Blues. . . boy, your guitar is your wife; just like that fine old woman, who you’re faithful to for life.” Good advice? Perhaps for some–perhaps living through profound joy or adversity is needed to “invent” a style such as has never been done before. But for the average artist, the rawness of the experience may not be necessary to emulate a style, elaborate it, and bring it to mainstream consciousness. Many musicians play the Blues as you say, “suffering pretenders.” Some truly suffer. Others play them with no thought of suffering — just the joy of creating music!


Own worst enemies
by Elsha Leventis, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Undoubtedly there are artists who thrive on chaos and suffering — victimhood translated onto canvas — and there are those who thrive on peacefulness. As humans we probably draw from both. It’s a myth that suffering is a pre- or co-requisite to being an artist. One wonders what all those artists in any field — from Toulouse Lautrec to Mozart — would have produced if they’d stopped being their own worst enemies. At the very least, they might have had more to paint or write, or they might even have lived longer and produced many more spectacular works.


Art for priests
by Anonymous

Har har har! Glad to hear you’re not affected by any of those problems Robert. At least not at this stage. With regard to enforced celibacy, your idea makes me think that priests ought to be given mandatory art lessons so they might redirect their antisocial tendencies in a healthy and productive way.


Teach me to aspire
by Ellen McCormick Martens, North Tonawanda, NY, USA


“Madeline Island”
by Ellen McCormick Martens

I do yoga and meditate, and I find it helps me do all sorts of things. Frustration also helps me. When I’m frustrated with a painting’s current state, I am building up energy inside, and I keep looking at it and trying to figure out the solution. Finally it comes (usually not when I am looking at it, but some other time, or in a dream), and I whirl into the final stages of the painting. Other times, I get an image that is so compelling to me that it wakes me up and makes me paint it rapidly. I don’t get those often, but I keep working at the “ordinary” images because otherwise I would paint very infrequently. My failed paintings teach me to go in another direction. My ordinary paintings teach me my craft. My extraordinary paintings teach me to aspire to a higher level of achievement.


More time for art

When I was the mother of two young children and the wife of a demanding husband, I was introduced to a Catholic Brother who was a well known artist in our community. Visiting his studio he allowed me to browse through his sketchbooks. There was an entire bookcase of watercolor sketches — scenes from all over the world. I could hardly contain my envy. His studio was wonderful. It was located on the grounds of an old monastery turned retreat center. He obviously had time and money to travel and sketch and paint. My comment was “There’s something to be said for celibacy.” I was regretting giving up my childhood fantasy of becoming a nun. My comment was passed around our local art world and everyone was quite amused by my longing for celibacy so that I could have time to create. The frustration idea did not even occur to me — just the results of not being celibate… children and husband and managing a household took a lot away from me creatively. Many years later, although still not celibate, I am happy to say I have been able to arrange my life to make creativity a priority and am lecturing and teaching others to follow their creative self.


Stable environment
by Sandy Triolo, Silver Spring, MD, USA

Although I have had my share of struggling to overcome large obstacles, addictions and self-created disasters, I find that the place I feel the most ready and able to think about, plan for and produce art is a stable and loving environment. The life struggles have contributed to my unique view and appreciation of life and even though I’m happy, I can still reach inside me and find tension, confusion and other internal turmoil to use in my art. The trick is not to forget where you came from and where you have been.


Whatever turns you on
by Martine Gourbault

Eventually, after asking enough questions and rummaging around in our psyches and everyone else’s, surely we will each be able to stand solidly on our own two feet, and know that whichever way we do things, is the right way for us and to hell with everybody else’s theories of how, or why we should draw, paint, meditate or just watch a cloud go by while we scratch the itch. Let’s all say it together one more time: “Whatever turns you on.” We were all made different for a good reason. Let us celebrate that.


Always obstacles
by Veronica Funk


painting by Veronica Funk

Being in the early stage of my career, there are always obstacles and though I’ve been extremely fortunate, I find I can easily concentrate on the setbacks instead of my good fortune. I often feel I cannot work under stress — but I do believe that painting is a type of meditation and when I don’t paint, my life can become overwhelming. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one who suffers self-doubt and anxiety, and it certainly puts my creative life into perspective to hear William Faulkner‘s words.


Thanks, but no thanks
by Dawn Hamilton

Your response in your letter made me laugh — mostly because we humans are so entertaining in our diversity. We all need something different to get the creative juices flowing. For myself, it is very difficult to create when I’m angry, pressured, tense, in financial need, or frustrated. Those feelings may be expressed later but they need to be mostly resolved before I can address them artistically. So I’ll pass on the daunting competition, chronic anger, bank overdrafts, impossible deadlines, and enforced celibacy — but thanks for the suggestions!


No sex please, we’re artists
by Jim Rowe


“painting by Jim Rowe

Very interesting. I really became obsessed with painting, about the same time that I was cut off from sex, sometime around 15 to 20 years ago. It’s interesting to see the world’s fascination with a troubled artist. The artists sure wouldn’t share their enthusiasm.


Special bin
by Jean Pastula, Oregon, USA

The secret of my success, as a teacher, a professor and an artist, is that I file abstract criticism in a special bin marked… Negatives… I find trying to please everyone very depressing… swimming up stream is, indeed, non-productive.


Painting above the mess of life
by Pam Thurston, Pigeon Lake, Alberta, Canada

Painting is the place where I feel/ emote/ capture/ depict a sense of rising above it all. Whether it is in a state frustration or calm that I paint, the goal is to move beyond daily human struggle. I paint to get there and often go through a ritual similar to a dog circling in his nest before settling. I have been advised (kindly) to “attack” a painting, go to it with abandon, get mad — the results have been therapeutic perhaps, but if I carry anxiety through a painting, the result is not satisfying and often ends up filed under “G.” I think it all goes back to your question of several letters ago, “Why do art?” If some do it as a response to “daunting competition, chronic anger, bank overdrafts, impossible deadlines, and enforced celibacy” and the results are satisfying… so be it. For me, those situations (along with uninvited houseguests) are an impediment to painting well. Maslow’s theory of self-actualization applies. Only when one has risen above physical need and conquered emotional turmoil can spirit/love be addressed. Personally I cannot paint well if I dwell on what a mess my life is!


Faults and failings are fuel
by Margot Hattingh, South Africa


“Two Sisters”
by Margot Hattingh

Practical tips and spiritual practice can seem to be on opposite sides, but I think one really needs both. Without the spiritual dimension what is the point? There has to be easier, safer, more dependable ways to make a living. Without the practical side one cannot afford to pay for materials, living expenses etc. For me, the prime motivator is simply the personal passion that gives meaning to my existence. Unless I tap into that passion I lose motivation and inspiration. Once in touch with that I can use anything — joy, anger, even impending bankruptcy or enforced celibacy, to fuel my endeavors. Perhaps for some people, in order to first find their passion they need to suffer, just to uncover what is of prime importance, and then the suffering itself can create emotional energy, i.e. passion, which then fuels their work. All great artists were consumed by it and obsessed by their subject — they learnt how to turn not only their talents, but their faults and failings into fuel for their work.


Art leads the way
by Alar Jurma, Montreal, Canada

The universal law of action is such that everything must once again return to its original state of rest, or equilibrium. If love turns into anger or anxiety, as our present world knows only too well, then the search is already on to find and move towards its polar opposite. Art can lead the way.


Not emotionally flat
by Rose Moon, Sedona, Arizona, USA


“Dark Night”
painting by Rose Moon

Some people misunderstand the nature of yoga and meditation. I like what the writer said about expressing your unresolved tension with creative endeavors. Yoga and meditation give me the physical strength to carry it out. It does not end life’s ups and downs. It only makes me more sensitive and aware and more creative. It also helps me to be more level headed when it comes to dealing with the world I live and work in. I could just be riding emotional waves rather than painting, finishing work and moving it out into the world. A state of well being does not mean being emotionally flat.




As soon as I’ve finished this, dear
by Richard Haynes, Fairfield, NJ, USA

My wife tells me she always knows when my work is going well, I am forever horny! And it seems the more sex I have the more I want to paint. Not sure why… but it wouldn’t be the first time I got things backwards! Maybe it’s because I’ve had anxiety attacks/disorder since I was 19 years old. It’s learning to channel that anxiety into work that is the tricky part and by the way, in reference to yoga and meditation I’ve been doing meditation for over 25 years and yoga for about 10. Both clear the mind and energize creativity like no drug I know.


Does size matter?
by Jan Yeb Ypma, Prince Rupert, BC, Canada

I am sure that your letter about sexual tension will prompt many painters to respond. I agree with you about the need for some form of tension, for everyone, not just artists. I suppose the old point of discussion about whether a starving artist is a better one has some applicability here too. I am not a motto-man, but today I coined one, which may have some utility: “When not painting up a storm, just paint one!” I quite like it, but then, I’m no stranger to vanity. May I plague you with a question? It is a logical extrapolation of the writer’s utterings: ‘Does size matter?’ My intention is innocent, however…do larger paintings tend to command more, per calorie of expressed inspiration? Lately, I have a propensity toward larger paintings and, while marketability isn’t my first concern, I just wondered.

(RG note) The power in the station is directly proportional to the amount of water behind the dam.


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