Voluntary graduation


Dear Artist,

Yesterday Leslie Kimball of Tehachapi, CA wrote, “I paint with a bunch of wonderful women. We are a tight group, no envy, etc., but I have begun to understand my needs better. I need more but I’m afraid to hurt feelings. Plus, if I leave I have no place to go. I don’t fit into any mold. In the group my style is all over the place. I’m not satisfied. What do you advise?”

Untitled #92, 1981. Photograph by Cindy Sherman (b.1954)

Untitled #92, 1981.
by Cindy Sherman (b.1954)

Thanks, Leslie. I’ve noticed that it’s often the artist with the courage to leave who makes the most headway. But “voluntary graduation” can be difficult. There’s something to be said for a group of like-minded friends. However, clubs are not for everyone. It sounds like you want out.

You do have a place to go. It is the place that all evolved artists must at some time go. It is to the world of your private imagination and personal development. This place is not lonely and it does not prevent you from having friends. Actually, you’ll make another kind of friend who will bring you just as much joy. You need to say to your group, “I dearly love you all, but I’m going into retreat for a while to see if that might beef up my quality.” Some will think you have rejected them, but down deep they will know that in the big picture a group is only a passage. I believe your decision will be respected.

Untitled #92, 1981 Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Untitled #92, 1981
by Cindy Sherman

When artists decide to go it alone, they have different stuff to think about. The ideal is to identify your particular and unique needs and then try to fulfill them. Outsiders can’t help you very much. Some artists need to shake off aspects of their art training, poisonous pedagogy or habitual methodology. Others need to reapply what they already know. Some just need to buckle down and build a pile. Some quickly learn they are not cut out for the job and need to get on with something else. In a way, this is success as well.

Ideally, you ought to have an audacious understanding of your own direction. Successful loners are folks who are able to find out what turns them on and how to become their own best critics. The private studio becomes the school, the clubhouse and the laboratory. Setbacks can be expected, but graduation ceremonies will take place every day. Self-anointed diplomas will be issued frequently.

Untitled Film Still #13, 1978 Photograph by Cindy Sherman

Untitled Film Still #13, 1978
by Cindy Sherman

Best regards,


PS: “I am now quite cured of society, be it country or town. A sensible man ought to find sufficient company in himself.” (Emily Bronte)

Esoterica: Proficiency in art is a contract with your self and the empowerment of your self. Not all of us demand or even desire proficiency, but for those who do, it’s necessary to temper the influence of groups. And while some artists think history is bunk, the historical evidence is overwhelming: “In my isolation I grow stronger,” said Paul Gauguin. “My work is always better when I’m alone and follow my own impressions,” said Claude Monet. “If the artist is serious he must sink himself in solitude,” said Edgar Degas. “Solitary trees, if they grow at all, grow strong,” said Winston Churchill.

Untitled Film Still #13, 1978 by Cindy Sherman

A page from A Cindy Book, 1964-75
by Cindy Sherman

This letter was originally published as “Voluntary graduation” on April 25, 2008.

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In solitude, we give passionate attention to our lives, to our memories, to the details around us. (Virginia Woolf)




  1. There is so much truth here and really well developed. The fourth paragraph and the quotes should be read by every artist who feels they have a destiny in art but feels they do not know the path to show people. So many feel they need a teacher yet do not realize they face that special teacher every morning in the mirror.

  2. “Each one of us is alone in the world. It takes great courage to meet the full force of your aloneness. Most of the activity in society is subconsciously designed to quell the voice crying in the wilderness within you. The mystic Thomas à Kempis said that when you go out into the world, you return having lost some of yourself. Until you learn to inhabit your aloneness, the lonely distraction and noise of society will seduce you into false belonging, with which you will only become empty and weary. When you face your aloneness, something begins to happen. Gradually, the sense of bleakness changes into a sense of true belonging. This is a slow and open-ended transition but it is utterly vital in order to come into rhythm with your own individuality. In a sense this is the endless task of finding your true home within your life. It is not narcissistic, for as soon as you rest in the house of your own heart, doors and windows begin to open outwards to the world. No longer on the run from your aloneness, your connections with others become real and creative. You no longer need to covertly scrape affirmation from others or from projects outside yourself. This is slow work; it takes years to bring your mind home.”

    Excerpt from the book, Eternal Echoes

    • Cynthia Grover on

      O’Donohue says it so well – thank you for sharing his wisdom. His meditation on “Beauty” is a must for artists.

    • Thanks for this beautiful quote Andrea, I love John O’Donohue’s poems but had not read this. I completely agree about the importance of painting alone, I paint late at night when there is no chance of interruption. I used to paint occasionally with 2 or 3 other ladies, but the session evolved into more of a social event. True artistic progress comes from within.

    • I love John O’Donahue, I just finished Anam Cara. He puts things so sussinctly to me. Thankyou for this passage.
      This whole article is spot on for me for my growth, both artistically and personally, my emotional growth as a whole. Thankyou Sara!

    • Andrea, John O’Donohue is one of my favorite authors for inspiring. This column struck a deep note for me, as I am teetering on leaving an art guild, and working like mad and alone this summer. Support groups, artists’ gatherings, and a year of Covid-19 and deaths brought me face to face in the mirror. It feels as if the ground dropped away, but “for as soon as you rest in the house of your own heart, doors and windows begin to open outward to the world.” How wise and wonderful are these words.

  3. Groupthink is easy to get mired in….we are all victims of it whether subliminally or intentionally. Some of us enjoy being part of groupthink….how pervasive and popular is facebook….twitter….linked-in….instagram….religions….art evaluations….even this blog! To physically be part of a group activity takes a bit more dedication, but there are many reasons for joining other than the activity itself. The old adage “safety in numbers” applies here, as does “better be safe than sorry”….the excuse about hurting feelings is just that, an excuse. Going solo takes courage and confidence….traits that are either developed or denied.

  4. What might have sounded valiant and true a year ago tings very differently to me after 13 months of isolation. I have always loved my solitude but the camaraderie and shared purpose of groups is what has helped me endure the inevitable bouts of self doubt and alienation I experience alone. None of my long term groups have survived the pandemic and attempts at Zoom and I am wondering how to create new communities informed both by the depth of recent solitudes and the appreciation for our common (and uncommon) bonds.

    • Our tight-knit critique group became friendlier, stronger, better. Our larger, broader writing group, not so much. I became closer to all family, writing slowed but seems to be strengthening. This is a great creative piece and string is very thoughtful and helpful for reflections.

  5. I remember when this article first came out. I was in my second year with my second group of floor hockey players. We played Monday & Wednesday nights. The Robert Genn Twice-Weekly Newsletter came out late Monday & Thursday nights back then. Often with my heart racing I’d read those ‘Tuesday’ letters like this one. I savoured them. I often dreamt them. Mr. Genn was the first person to publish my writings. He thought my writings were worthy. If a person visits my website https://yohnke.com and the testimonial section you’ll see praise for my life and writings. It all started with Mr. Genn believing in me. Mr. Genn departed May 27th, 2014 but he is still with me. Not a day passes without me thinking of him. Every single piece I write I have Mr. Genn challenging me in the back of my memory. I’m grateful for his life. I’m grateful for his darling daughter, Sara Genn’s life. She also challenges me in every single material I write. I’ve come to learn you need people to believe in you. You also need people to challenge you.
    R.I.P. (Rest In Paintings) Robert Genn – R.I.P. (Rest In Print) Robert Genn – R.I.P (Rest In Peace) Robert Genn
    Miles Patrick Yohnke, https://yohnke.com

  6. The fact that you’re recognizing your feelings is huge. You can always go back to workshops or groups. Enjoy your best efforts and give yourself the luxury of time spent with yourself. Keep us posted.

  7. I know this now, but I look back many years ago not knowing it. When I began painting and joining groups thinking that would be the right thing to do, I was young and pregnant. Kind fellow artist ladies invited me to join their painting group. I did. I liked these people enough to call them friends, still am with the ones who are still alive. But within some years I realized I was involved in something that made me feel if I said I didn’t want to join them anymore, I’d hurt feelings and appear that I didn’t like them. Even tho I knew I was the novelty friend, being 30 years younger than them, I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. So I went, weathered comments that made me want to scream…. Leave it alone, Mary Ann…. was the worst one. I look back to so many things now that I wish I’d handled differently. Maybe this is pandemic life, so much time in our own heads, and with age, so much more to look back on and wonder the why’s about.

  8. I love this line: “Self-anointed diplomas will be issued frequently.” I forget to give these to myself and have to remember that my best improvements were made when I piled up the work. Thank you for this letter. Jane

  9. I agree. Though for the last 5 years I’ve been pretty solitary and in my studio every day, the pandemic gave me even more solitude and seemed to whittle down all distractions so I could go deeper into my work. I realized that I like being alone and wondered why so many people found it to be so hard to be by themselves. I feel that I’m painting even more seriously and thoughtfully. I feel changed somewhat by the experience and think I can go visit galleries in a more conscious way and perhaps seek out more like-minded friends.

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https://painterskeys.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/peter-hobden_moment-wpcf_300x240.jpgWaiting Moment
oil on canvas
54 x 40 cm

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