Recent studies of more than 5,000 people by social scientists Dr. Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler show that happiness is contagious. The happy people you know are party to your own happiness. Moreover, the happy people you do not know and will never meet also have an influence on your happiness. Just like the guy who catches the cold from the guy who catches the cold, happiness (or misery) is epidemic.
It’s been observed for some time that if a person has a lot of obese friends, they themselves are at a higher risk of obesity. Smokers hang out with smokers, glue sniffers with glue sniffers, etc. It doesn’t take a big leap of faith to see that an artist who hangs out with mediocre artists is more likely to be mediocre.
Conversely, an artist who is attached to artists with high standards and professional ways is more likely to become one of them. In my ideal world, all the 250,000 “friends” who read my letters would somehow seek the higher ground, identify with and learn from the better artists out there, and become the truly great artists I know they can become. But I also know this is wishful thinking. Many happy campers will always be contented to go with the comfortable crowd.
In my ideal world, artists would be rugged individualists with impeccable standards and would not allow mediocrity to transgress their doorsteps. They might keep the company of their favoured greats through the miracle of books. That’s the short answer. The longer one is to establish relationships with admired others who walk the walk. For those who desire to put themselves on the path to growth, the wisdom to choose true authority is the bottom line of progress.
A reasonable route is to know a lot of informed and gifted mentors and to balance them against one another, as in the recently mentioned smARTist telesummit. Hanging out with informed people makes it more likely that you yourself will become informed. But sooner or later, no matter who you know, you have to go to your room and reinvent yourself in your own glory. It can be a bit lonely struggling in your room, but by that time you’re less likely to catch a cold.
PS: “We have a collective identity that transcends individual identity.” (Dr. Nicholas Christakis)
Esoterica: Collective identities can build empires as well as destroy them. A collective is just as apt to close minds as to open them. Struggling on your own, thinking things out for yourself and being a rugged individualist works just fine for many artists. But it doesn’t work for doctors, engineers or architects, so why would it work for other professionals who require knowledge, skill and practice? In the arts, before we jump we need to stand — however briefly — on the shoulders of others.
by Rick Smith
Many might be happy to take the middle road and go with the comfortable ground, but the beauty of written communication, is you’ll never know unless they tell you. You’ll just have to assume that most are “rugged individualists who would not allow mediocrity to transgress their doorsteps.” Why not? I don’t know you or any other the people who write you, so why shouldn’t I just assume that they are what they write. This way I can believe I’m in touch with this huge community of serious, dedicated artists. What more could I ask for?
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Contagion of reinvention
by Brian Kliewer, Rockland, ME, USA
Reinvention is something I’ve longed for, for a long time. Having been known as a lands cape artist for years, it’s hard to break the habit or be accepted when I do. So, I might try looking through different eyes, or a frost covered window. It’s still a landscape. It’s really about perspective, if you ask me. Interestingly, whenever I have ‘reinvented’ myself, as above, the strongest response has always come from other artists. Maybe it’s because they feel the same way — and want to reinvent themselves as well?
The right friends
by Cristina Monier, Buenos Aires, Argentina
For 8 years I took painting lessons with a very important Argentine artist, Guillermo Roux, I learnt a lot but I did not make the progress I was looking for, then I met my actual teacher, Gabriela Aberastury, and I really took off. She is incredible, no matter the level of the student she always manages to elicit the best of him or her. I am surrounded by very creative people, we show and sell our work, we receive important prizes, we share experiences and knowledge, we do not compete, we really help each other to grow and the result is amazing.
by Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
The myth of the lonely, troubled artist is just that: A myth. In most every urban setting there are artist’s “quarters.” These are areas of low rents, or abandoned industrial spaces, turned into loft spaces where artists live and work together. Indeed, with the exception of the priesthood and the military, there is no profession that compares to art in terms of gregariousness. There are artist’s clubs and societies in every hamlet. There is no myth about the lonely and troubled tradesmen. At the same time one never finds groups of plumbers and carpenters living adjacent in large numbers. Perhaps artists should be more concerned about the other professions, and more thankful for their own good luck.
by Michael P. Ives
This morning I find myself re-painting a 40 x 40 inch oil that has not sold in so many years that I felt it necessary to do something about it. Although it is one of my favorite ‘painterly’ pieces, I recognize that because of its abstract and non-compromising composition, it’s difficult for the normal viewer to read very easily. Over the years I have found that ‘Pedestrian Art,’ that is; art that is easy to visually digest and, well, kinda dumbed down compared to what I think is important work, sells the best and fastest. Especially when donating a piece to an organization for auction, even though I want to highlight my most important work that I’m proudest of, I realize I’d better donate a piece that’s simple, pretty to look at and non-threatening for best results. I wonder if this sounds familiar to you or your readers?
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The Schmid connection
by Alfred Serge Kappler
Some time ago, one of your letters recommended several books, including Richard Schmid’s Alla Prima (which I just finished reading). This is to thank you for that recommendation. Over the years, I have read a lot of books about painting. Schmid’s is the first that left me with the sense of a book having grown out of the author’s long struggles with actual recalcitrant paint. The chapters on edges and on color and light are the best and the most useful pieces on these topics that I have ever come across. And then, there are the occasional side comments, such as that humans do not see in the same way as cameras see; which serve as precious reminders of obvious and important truths one routinely forgets. The book also has an important accidental virtue in that it causes acute reader awareness of the difference between two questions: How do I — should I — go about painting? And “What should I paint and why?” Because Schmid answers the first question superbly well, his silence on the second provokes the reader to ask “Why would anyone be out there in the cold, rain, or snow, painting landscapes?” Perhaps Schmid’s repeated dwelling on the discomforts of outdoor painting also prompts that question. His implied answer is that he’s painting nature because “nature is perfect,” is about as convincing as suggesting that musical composition is the recording of birdsong and other natural sounds. Perhaps he himself has not achieved an explicit peace with the second question, but that matters less than that he inadvertently causes his readers to confront it. It’s a question every painter must ask at some point and seek to answer in ways more illuminating than “I just love to paint trees and shrubbery (or portraits, etc.), and it gives me great joy when I manage to do it well.” In any case, this is a wonderful and provocative book and I thank you again for recommending it.
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Happiness is contagious
by Fc Millard
Meeting people can really inspire us but only close the bedroom door “cocooning” can really help. “Loneliness is god’s way of leading us back to ourselves” (Hermann Hesse)
“Genuine communion,” said Demian, “is a beautiful thing. But what we see flourishing everywhere is nothing of the kind. The real spirit will come from the knowledge that separate individuals have of one another and for a time it will transform the world. The community spirit at present is only a manifestation of the herd instinct. Men fly into each other’s arms because they are afraid of each other — the owners are for themselves, the workers are for themselves, the scholars for themselves! And why are they afraid? You are only afraid if you are not in harmony with yourself.
“People are afraid because they have never owned up to themselves. A whole society composed of men afraid of the unknown within them! They all sense that the rules they live by are no longer valid, that they live according to archaic laws–neither their religion nor their morality is in any way suited to the needs of the present. For a hundred years or more Europe has done nothing but study and build factories! They know exactly how many ounces of powder it takes to kill a man but they don’t even know how to be happy for a single contented hour.”
Demian predicts there will be some kind of large scale conflict. He says not much will really change, but it will at least “reveal the bankruptcy of present-day ideals, there will be a sweeping away of Stone Age gods.” p 115
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Problems with “higher ground”
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA
What is higher ground? The problem I have found is that artists often think they have found it, but it is just a plateau and they have ceased to look up and realize they haven’t reached the top yet. Then they stop and start preaching about it. No matter who we hang with or how great we think they are as artists, we are all limited because Art is greater than our capacity to understand it. There are plenty of artists out there that are “successful,” but, not necessarily “better.” I get nervous when you use words like “better,” “higher,” “true authority.” There is no one answer. Many “great” artists and historians have argued bitterly over what is “good” art. I believe the answer it to remain very skeptical of artists that claim to have all the answers, learn from them yes, but, as you say, sooner or later you have to sort through it all and make your own path.
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Tarred with the same brush
by Collette Renee Fergus, New Zealand
This is what my parents always told me with friends “you get tarred with the same brush” it took me many years to work out what they meant. The reality is that you tend to emulate your peers whether you mean to or not and they will always have an influence on what you do or how you behave. I do, however, feel that as most artists tend to work in isolation they don’t often come across this cross pollination and are not affected in the same way necessarily. It is when you do start to mix with others that it tends to have that influence that can make or break you.
Us creative types do tend to want to be individuals, at least further along in our careers, as who wants to be similar or ‘like’ someone else when you have worked hard to create an individuality that you hope is unique enough to make you stand out from the crowd.
Work ethics maybe a good thing to learn or not learn from others as that can make the difference of good production and behavior as opposed to poor standards.
I see some artists who try to emulate well known artists whose paths they have crossed, they seem to think they can command the same prices and achieve instant fame and short track their way to the stardom that these others have strived over many years to achieve and then I see others who perhaps should be up there names in lights, only they don’t have the drive or idea to make it happen. All in all I really believe that mixing with other artists is important but learn to weed out what’s good for you and your career and what’s not.
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by Su Rogers
Making art is a solitary experience; one has to accept and learn to love the process of being alone with it. In most artists’ daily lives, it is very hard to find a living breathing artist to have a dialogue with that one respects and admires. The closest thing I can come to is going to an artist talk at a gallery to hear someone speak about their process or work and that is a rare event. My process has always been to dig deep into my personal sensibilities, my personal experience, my gut feelings, my sense of longing and my sense of aloneness to find a path for my expression; anyone else’s experience with these things really doesn’t help me at all. It needs to be true to me.
I give myself permission to function as an individualist in my art expression and I rarely talk to other artists any more. I have access to galleries and books and the inner recesses of my own soul for sustenance — my two cents worth.
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Going for the ideal
by Keith Cameron, Sierra Madre, CA, USA
This email more than any other has touched me. The effort to seek out this kind of life would be my ideal. The disappointments have been to meet those with great purpose cashing it in for the sake of their ego, but on the other hand having those moments of realization that make life great with another soul feeling similar are the best of times. I guess I have a greedy side because I am not very tolerant of the less enjoyable moment. I do appreciate you referencing this topic from within your vast personal library at this time, as it is a worthy goal to seek this out in the New Year.
All the best this holiday season, and though I have been seasoned in a California state of mind it is at this time I most miss my home country Canada, and the enlightened souls who live there. I know I am going to enjoy a nice cup of tea and some Neil Young to toast your email, and the aspiration it encourages.
Thankful for letters
by Eileen Bowie
I thank you for your consistency and insights. Your letters are beautiful, gentle and thoughtful and more often than not, timely. Maybe thoughts are contagious along with happiness. In any event, my friends and family wish you the best for this season and all the nexts.
(RG note) Thanks Eileen, and thanks to all who wrote with season’s greetings and appreciation for the connection.
Enjoy the past comments below for Who you know…
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 Selwyn ‘Sell’ Owen of Toronto, ON, Canada who wrote, “This thing about planning, allowing for being human, expecting the unexpected, doesn’t this say that our finest hour is the one spent on the battlefield? I mean what’s a warrior without a battle?”
And also Paol Serret who wrote, “Thank you Robert, for all this instructive and lovely letters, I am proud to be part of the 250,000 friends from around the world, good on you, I wish you and family a great and relaxing holidays …. Here in Australia we will do with a 30 degrees lunch with friends and relatives and a dip into the ocean, I will think about you when I am in the water.”
And also Jan Blencowe who wrote, “You just concisely stated one of my biggest goals for the New Year, to break away from the comfortable, the mediocre, the herd mentality, and truly become the accomplished artists I know I can be. Thanks for stating it so clearly, I hope it encourages others do raise their bar also. I’ve already signed up for the smARTIST Telesummit, one step closer to achieving my dreams.”