The Joy Mode


Dear Artist,

Being happy with your life is one thing — being happy with your work is another. Between snow-capped peaks, by satellite hook-up, some email responses to the previous letter ‘Happiness’ made me pay attention. One thing leads to another, so over the weekend we were onto the late British potter Michael Cardew’s oft-discussed concept of The Joy Mode. Cardew said; “If you’re lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you — without you having too much to do with it.” This insight is basic to many of our daily sorties into art. Luck, long life, and the trust and understanding of materials are givens — but it’s the old instinct thing that often has us face down in the snow.


Michael Cardew (1901-83)
photo: Ben Boswell

Some, it’s said, have a simple instinct for getting into the joy mode. I’ve always thought it had something to do with competence — the better you are at it — the more you automatically do it. It seems confirmed incompetents have been known to be joyful too. Here are a few suggestions for artists of all stripes:

Permit the brain to separate from the hand.
Soften your vision, focus beyond and before.
Allow yourself to be “entranced” by your work.
Feel a “process” rather than an outcome, and…
Live in the life of the brush, chisel, roller.
Prepare to be surprised by your prowess.
Labor to make things look not laborious, and…
Take your time to be fresh.
Come into the wonderland of “Flow.”
See that your “touch” is where you touch.
Know that you sit before an altar and are a servant of something greater.

Best regards,


PS: “I have touched with a sense of art some people — they felt the love and the life. Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?” (Mary Cassatt)

Esoterica: It’s a lofty dream: We modestly desire to turn work into play, minor joys into greater values, and our outpourings into a contribution toward the general good and by a stroke of outrageous luck into our personal profit. “Art is man’s expression of his joy in labor.” (William Morris)

The following are selected responses to the above letter. Thank you for writing.


Joy in competence
by Henry

For both artist and collector the real source of consistent and lasting joy is consistent competence. One of the problems these days is the commercial presence of so much substandard work. The public, through the general confusion, exuberant media, and the bamboozling of critics, has become used to it and has encouraged its acceptability. Because of the general wealth, (as well as ga-ga collectorship and décor-mania) true quality has now wandered very low indeed. While there is no reason why amateurs should not get joy with their art-making it is important that professionals retain their integrity, take pride in the production of excellence, avoid the bandwagon, and resist taking part in the general decline of culture.


Joy is painting well
by Billie B Bradley

Joy is the best word to describe what goes on when you are painting well and the work is flowing. “Joy is but the sign that creative emotion is fulfilling its purpose.” (Charles Du Bois)

PS: I go through the responses with a fine tooth comb — and thanks so much for the Resource of Art Quotations. It’s truly useful.


Full joy difficult
by Daisy Chain

It is worth considering that there is probably no time when everything is perfect and joy is complete. It’s a haphazard, chance filled game at best. Particularly in painting — or any other field of the arts — where the brilliant leaders and outstandingly talented are very few. I have taken joy by setting my standards within more realistic boundaries and not expecting so much from myself. “Man is never happy, but spends his whole life in striving after something which he thinks will make him so.” (Arthur Schopenhauer)


Wise young owls
by Epic Dewfall

I dream that I am reading a cartoon about art appreciation. In the cartoon I see a wise owl showing a painting to two young owls. The painting is mounted in the side of a tree in a spot carved out for it. But the painting is facing inward. The two young owls ask how are they supposed to see the painting that way. The wise old owl tells them, one has to be inside the tree to see the painting. In the next panel we see the three of them standing in front of the same tree but in a happier brighter looking surroundings. The painting is on the same tree but is facing outward this time. One of the young owls says, “Oh yes, I see what you mean.”


The love factor
by Russell W. McCrackin, Corvallis, OR, USA

I am very lucky. I have these three:

1. I paint, and I do get to share my paintings.
2. I love painting, and I love my wife. (Wife is number one, painting number two.)
3. I hope for many more years of doing the same. I’m only 75, so each moment of painting is precious, even when struggling.

What more could I ask for?


Life couldn’t be better
by William Band, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Somehow after all these years I have managed to get to do illustrations of houses. I create the total atmosphere from kids playing ball, or pulling wagons. The flowers are thick and colourful and the trees dance with shadows over the main subject the house. All work is done in watercolour in my style. I lack only the freedom of the colour, and shape of the house. When the job is completed I will have made a little financial freedom to pursue my own subjects of local historical buildings. Life doesn’t get any better than that.


Be prepared
by Chris Pfouts

As a writer, I’ve found that my main responsibility is to keep my writing muscles toned and supple for those rare moments when real golden inspiration hits. The discipline, the mental file of structures, the mental library of observations and feelings, emotions and passions, the vocabulary — all the fundamentals — have to be flexed and pumped to make sure that you’re equal to the task. Like the Boy Scouts: Be Prepared. It’s good advice. If you’re not in shape, the opportunity to write with real inspiration fades away like a Doppler sound, leaving you fanning away exhaust stink — which is often the smell of sweet controlled combustion happening for a prepared someone who caught the moment that passed you by. And not surprisingly, the more you stay in shape and ready, the more inspirations come your way. The truth of this comes in my paintings — I do it so infrequently these days that I have to re-teach myself techniques and basics before I can roll. By then, often, my initial vision has dimmed — sometimes to the extent that I see more hole than donut and abandon the project. But always, since I warmed myself up, I pick another project and work on it. The moral is: Be prepared. It’s the best thing you can do for yourself.


Joy in God
by Jeni Feeser

I find after two letters on joy and happiness, I just have to comment from my perspective. How many artist’s put God in the quotient? God gives more joy than we can ever handle. Every time I pick up the paintbrush and am surprised by what is transferred from my mind’s eye to the canvas, I can only marvel at His work through me. I have finally realized that when I first give it to Him, the happiness that follows — the peace that is there — is overwhelmingly abundant. C. S. Lewis, a marvelous writer and encourager, wrote a book entitled Surprised by Joy. If you haven’t read it, give it a try.


Spiritual questions
by Margaret Gee, Burnaby, BC, Canada

As I read your letters and the comments of others, I keep thinking, we are not talking only about physical ‘art’ here. There are spiritual ideas, and questions discussed that have been posed in other times and by other people in religious terms. It makes me wonder, does thinking as an artist, using a language that speaks of ‘muse,’ “inspiration,’ “meditation,” etc. mean the same to artists as the words “God,” “Divine Intervention,” “Prayer” mean to someone who uses traditional words to describe their own spiritual journey/experience? I wonder if other artists find the two ways of describing this journey compatible? Do artists find meaning in traditional religious expression? Does our culture make it acceptable to talk about our muse but odd if we say our work is inspired by God? Is it okay to meditate but suspect if we pray? Are we all taking about the same things here or do you feel there is an “artistic spirituality” that exists independently from a traditional organized religious experience? How do other artists reconcile the dual nature of their spirituality? Thanks for any thoughts on this.

(RG note) Working with our hands and minds to create things that do not have immediate utilitarian value crosses all cultures and has gone on since the dawn of mankind. Perhaps the spirituality of art transcends all others. Not that it is above or below — it just is — pervasive in human nature, and capable of enhancing all other spiritualities. It’s interesting to note that artists the world over very often give credit for their muse to their own perceptions of God. I may be wrong on this, but it seems to me that a high percentage of artists these days are “spiritual” rather than religious in the orthodox sense.


Up and down
by Angela Curious, Hemel Hampstead, UK

I notice that your letters are very up and down. Some are useful and inspiring, others not so. Are you sometimes moody or angry? Are you ever depressed, and if so, what depresses you?

(RG note) I apologize if I’m not always up. I’m told that on the surface I appear to be sunny side up. This is probably a façade. I think my problem is that I’m too sensitive. For example, yesterday my XJS failed the emissions test. This bothers me, even though most of the emissions are nocturnal. It’s one of those little impedimenta that stand in the way of creativity — including painting and trying to write things that may be of use to other artists. If I seem a bit down at any time, please just delete me. This doesn’t bother me.

“Well! Well! Well!… This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!” (Georgia O’Keeffe arriving in New Mexico)


You may be interested to know that artists from 92 countries, as well as every state in the USA and all provinces in Canada have visited these sites since January 1, 2001.

That includes Hani Elalfi of Helsinki, Finland, Berry Banks, Barnaby Guthrie, Louise Grey and Paul Van Ginkel who says, “I’m in the mood to further capitalize on my professional (and personal) freedom and take advantage of “artistic” opportunities. This includes living and painting abroad for an extended period of time. Any ideas?”


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