“Work is not necessarily work,” wrote Bob Abrahams of Perth, Australia. “It depends on how one views it. Work is like ‘service’ — to others or to humanity. Serving is a joyous activity.”
Thanks, Bob. Actually, a lot of artists tell themselves that work isn’t work, and they start to believe it. Then others do, too. That’s how the idea of ‘work is play’ got around. It’s a popular myth but, like a lot of myths, it holds up a candle of truth. Max Elliott of Banff, Alberta, recently asked, “Why do visual artists ‘work’ and musicians ‘play’?” Thanks, Max. Good question. Why should those guys have all the fun? Speaking of fun, Noel Coward said, “Work is more fun than fun.” Was he onto something or was he just another self-deluder?
It’s my bet that we humans are in the greatest state of joy when we serve. And that goes for serving the work that we love. “Love something? Serve it,” was research scientist Roshni Mitra’s key to extended joy. “Happy are the painters for they shall not be bored,” said Winston Churchill. But if it was just about avoiding boredom, we’d have long ago quit and gone bowling.
No, it’s service. Art is service to a demanding Goddess who demands play as part of her servicing. And here’s the rub: We have to put in a certain amount of work to get to the fun parts. Sure, we can muck about with the materials up to our armpits — we might even convince ourselves that it’s art that we’re making. But to get to the real joy we have to at least get a glimpse at proficiency. Even if we’re not quite there, we need to get to the point where we can see a job well done. If we have any sense of personal potential — and of our wider humanity — it is our truest desire to be smiled upon by the demanding Goddess.
Contingent on all of this is that the artist be an individualist. Self-starting individualists are in a better position to free themselves and manage a balance between play and work. And when coupled with high ideals, loftier goals become more attainable. Serving our love means putting our heads down and achieving skills that are commensurate with our vision. The two go hand in hand and grow together. Serving also means valuing process. Process is its own joy. It’s a way of being. “Work is love made visible.” (Kahlil Gibran)
PS: “Art! Who comprehends her? With whom can one consult concerning this great Goddess?” (Ludwig van Beethoven)
Esoterica: Psychologists and other scientists have been studying the role of play in the actions of humans and animals. In protozoa and in people the “Theory of Play” suggests that playful play is a vital preparation for willful work. Bryn Mawr College professor, Paul Grobstein, in Variability in Brain Function and Behavior, says, “Play is not only to be enjoyed but to be accorded high value for its fundamental role in the success of all organisms, including humans.” In Playgrounds and Classrooms, Brooke Lowder of Haverford College traces our shortfall of creativity to the restriction of childhood play and the dominance of school curricula. “Enforced homework,” he says, “is the destroyer of childhood imagination.”
The love quotient
by Patricia Peterson, New York City, NY, USA
The love quotient, which is a major component to sustain oneself through the pitfalls and tribulations of learning to create beyond the craft and skills required, is not mentioned in your work and play formula, yet it is the specific reason people respond and want art in their lives — recognition of the degree of love devoted to art of any form. It is the major part of what elevates one’s life and has nothing to do with level of artistic achievement, style, theory, thought processes or any other element embodied with it. It can be seen, felt and recognized in the efforts of children. “Do what you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” (Confucius)
by Maria Jones, Sudbury, ON, Canada
The first thing I thought of when I read your letter was a (short, 200 page) book by Stephen Nachmanovitch called Free Play, Improvisation in Life and Art. Not only does it have beautiful quotes, stories and pictures, it encourages you to be your authentic creative self. It is a book for artists, writers, musicians, anyone who aspires to create. Nachmanovitch’s opening line describes an “old Sanskrit word, lila, which means divine play, the play of creation, destruction, and re-creation, the folding and unfolding of the cosmos.” This book was on our “recommended reading” list in college, and I can’t recommend it enough!
Gems of wisdom
by Robert Wade, Australia
Personally I would rather be bored than lonely, but we are so fortunate to do as we do and therefore neither state of mind exists for the dedicated painter. Many years ago, I purchased a very second-hand copy of Painting as a Pastime by Winston Churchill for only 70p while on a painting tour of England. Just like Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit one can flick it open at any page and come across similar gems of wisdom. He drops in these delightful lines like: “When I get to Heaven I mean to spend a considerable portion of my first million years in painting!”
Pouring out love
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA
Our talent is given to us for a purpose in this life. Use it, or lose it! I do not think of money. How much time do we waste each day in grumbling, or watching TV? I find it so much more rewarding to paint a scene of peace that will last 100 years and bring happiness to others. That is my legacy in listening to the poems and stories of others, pouring out the love into my artwork on canvas which is reflected to the viewers for many years to come.
Man the player
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
I was surprised that you didn’t mention the classic text on the subject of play, Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens roughly means “Man the Player” and this seminal work has influenced more fields of contemporary study than you could shake a stick at. If you were into shaking sticks, that is!
Frustrating middle part
by Travis Bowles, Calgary, AB, Canada
I find that art is a very joyous obsession that has one large drawback — the frustration that is involved with the middle of the process. The beginning and the ending stages are real joyous, but the middle, when things can go either way, is really frustrating for me. Any advice on how to work through this troubled period of the process in painting?
(RG note) Thanks, Travis. Try just not doing the middle part.
Labour of Love
by Sara Sparks, California, USA
I’m once more re-entering my art world after a very long dry spell. When people say, “Oh, I wish I could do that, you make it look so easy,” etc., I think of the old quote of “ten percent talent, and ninety percent work.” It’s a great joy when a painting comes easily and a huge frustration to find yourself halfway through and it’s just not working. It’s wonderful to see a show finally hung after months (years) of working through the easy and the frustrating. I’m happy to have my gift, and yet sometimes it would just be much easier to go dig in the garden, vacuum the halls or go for a walk, than settle down to the focus, concentration and cramps in the shoulder and ache in the legs to produce my “offspring”… guess that’s why they call it a “Labour of Love.”
Art plus life equals joy
by Minaz Jantz, Vancouver, BC, USA
We can create war or we can create peace. Creativity is the inheritance of every human while art is the visual history. Before common people of every culture is the expression of art depicting the myths, fears, enlightenment and stories expressed by the artists (the real historians?). In schools it seems the student is forced to swallow history through the written works about war. During years in university I chose twice to do research of history, not through the eyes of warriors and politicians, but through the experiences of dancers and artists. Freedom of expression is a target to be destroyed by those powers who want to create war. Artists who have the courage, during these sieges of warmongers, to still create their expressions should be honored with medals for their service to mankind as they use a paintbrush instead of a gun.
Happy campers play hard
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
The main focus on my summer camp for kids is on the benefits of play to stimulate the creative process. We’re celebrating our tenth year, and I must be doing something right, because repeat campers are flowing back. The joy of sharing and serving a platter of playful artistic exercises is the best food for the soul. Love what you do, do what you love. Where is it written in stone that we must not enjoy our playful work? Whether preparing meals, cleaning, brainstorming ideas, priming a canvas or painting, why can’t we enjoy each activity playfully? The hardest chore as an adult is remaining childlike in spirit. It’s all about the journey. Who can predict the destination? “Almost all creativity involves purposeful play.” (Abraham Maslow)
by Dorothy Whetnall, UK
Your material about tone is tattooed on my brain. I always set out with excellent intentions — I’m going to do it right this time. However, the moment the tubes come out, and the brushes and the wonderful smell of it all, a maniac takes over and out goes the intentions, in comes the colour, bits of finished stuff before the rest is even thought out, etc. — And I’ve done it again. So, this time I’ve again read your stuff. This time I’m resolute. This time it’s tone first!
The lady missed playing outdoors
by Diane Overmyer, Wakarusa, IN, USA
A few weeks ago I was painting in Southern Indiana at IPAPA’s first paint-out of the year. One day I had no choice but to stand in the sun with my umbrella being my only form of shade. It got very hot, but I was so impressed with the tenacity of the painters who were working near me. Two of whom were retirement age. Later that evening a man shared how his wife had gotten hot, so she had headed back to their hotel. They had brought their printer from home so she had ended up working from a photo of the scene in the comfort of the air-conditioned room. I frankly have no idea why someone like that would even join a plein-air group of artists! I felt like she had cheated (there was an art contest at the end of the paint-out), and I genuinely felt sorry for her, because she had missed the fun the rest of us had experienced while we had painted outdoors.
Not just a party girl
by Nita Macha, Houston, TX, USA
I remember starting college thinking that I, unlike my other friends who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up and who had a major geared in that direction, had no such objectives. Whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to do, my natural response would be to say that I just wanted to have fun. Somehow, that never sounded quite right as they might interpret that as meaning that I was just out partying. Not so!
What I wanted to say was that I just wanted to love whatever job I had and that it must be fun — at least to me. During the course of my 20+ year history of selling artwork, I never stopped saying that I would quit the day I stopped having fun. Eventually, I started having health problems and the job became a chore — physically and mentally. So I quit. My husband will never understand this as I made good money at my work. I made good money because I was very good at what I did and I loved it as well.
Now that I have begun again to create art, my husband is always trying to figure out ways that I can make money doing it. That seriously does not sound like fun to me as I cannot handle the responsibility of “having” to create. My work is beautiful because I do it in a prayerful way — because I “love” what I do. In the end, when I say “ah,” and know that something is finished, I look back and cannot recognize the creator.
Thank God for selfish people
by Kathleen Arnason, Willow Island, MB, Canada
My belief is that our job here on earth is to be the best we can be. It is our work to be happy and our happiness fertilizes our experiences. When we are creating we are being with our selves. The more we come to know ourselves the luckier the world is for knowing this easy energy. The rest of the time is left for us to be happy and share that happiness with humanity. Thank God for selfish people who care for themselves. For if you do not take care of yourself you will be of no use to anyone. In our giving we become the masters of our art. Life is but a collection of experiences we interpret. Every moment is a dot in the painting of our lives. Each dot a circle that is never-ending, surrounding the gift of creation.
No painting police
by Valerie Kent, Richmond Hill, ON, Canada
Whenever I have a new student I can see how he or she approaches the work — with trepidation and a feeling that there is something that they need to do, but cannot do or are not succeeding at doing well and actually the emotion for most is one of tremendous frustration and the ‘critical eye in the mirror’ is frowning. Actually this stage is less than joyous. People look at places and objects and people all their lives and when the painting does not measure up to a preconceived notion, the self-criticism sets in and the enjoyment flies out. It helps when I mention that there are no painting police, that it is just a sheet of paper or a small canvas that can be repainted and to relax with it and just have fun. It does seem to take some time for people to get to the level when there is a gap between the working and enjoying and then the self-criticism. As this gap gets broader, the fun starts to happen.
Creativity in artists and scientists
by Michael Jorden, Langley, BC, Canada
With regard to Jack Benson’s enquiry about how creative are artists vs. scientists — he is right, creativity is present abundantly in both and absent in both as well. In my university days I spent four years in the Faculty of Science and was exposed to some theory about scientific enquiry. The act of creating a hypothesis to explain a set of facts proceeds through a process of inductive (particular to general) reasoning and is an act of pure creativity. Science is full of those “Eureka!” moments — often in the bathtub or in the middle of the night — when the answer to an elusive question suddenly appears. By comparison, copying photographs onto canvas (even though I do it too) can be said to be comparatively uncreative.
(RG note) Thanks, Michael. And thanks to all who wrote to Jack Benson — artists and scientists.
by Ross Montour, Kahnawake, QC, Canada
Two weeks ago I attended a major retrospective of Ojibwa artist Norval Morrisseau at Canada’s National Gallery of Art. There is nothing ‘western’ about Morrisseau’s art. It grows powerfully and organically out of his own people’s Native tradition. It makes no apologies on behalf of its creator — indeed it confronts western sensibilities and announces its own potency. Morrisseau could care less if the ‘white man’ never declared him credible; he knows his authenticity. Like the great Nanibooshou of his people’s legends, Morrisseau shakes his great head, lays down his foot and the leaves fall from the trees. Compare this to European art at the turn of the last century. Photography, a creature of western technology, had only recently reared its head prompting artists to run for the cover of ingenuity. “Something new, something new,” became the ‘Om’ of art. That most deconstructionist of artists Pablo Picasso sheds an interesting light on all of this. When he and others in his circle began co-opting forms from oceanic and African cultures it was an admission of the desperate extremes western artists would go to in order ‘break new ground.’
And while their adoring publics were tittering about the greatness of these new maestros’ wild and carnivorous works, the newly reforming masters of orthodoxy continued to mischaracterize the sources of Picasso et al’s ‘inspiration.’ They continued to look down their noses at the ‘primitives’ (savages) who truly created the source art and their cultures. In Canada, Native artists who painted in styles and forms that grew authentically out of their own cultures had to live with the fact that in their own land their works were ‘banished’ from the cultural temples of white society – i.e. the major public art galleries. For over 40 years the ‘esteemed’ Art Gallery of Ontario revealed its ethnocentricity by declaring the works of Morrisseau and others as being fit only to be shown in ethnographic and natural history museums. How barren!
Back to the Morrisseau exhibition in Ottawa. After viewing the showing, my wife and I decided to take in the works of the permanent collection. Walking through hall after hall of Flemish masters and Italian renaissance masters etc., we stumbled across a room labeled ‘New York School.’ Entering the room we were immediately confronted by two massive colour field paintings by Barnett Newman. One of these — ‘Red Stripe’ — was a triptych nearly 20 feet in height. It almost demanded an act of worship be done. I laughed out loud because, for one thing, it reminded me of my first viewing of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Remember the scene at the end when the cavemen come upon the huge blank monolith, the drums pounding out the rhythm in the soundtrack… Enigmatic to say the least! In the end they worshipped nothing. My sincerest thanks for your patience in reading this rant. I make no apology though — I am, after all, a Mohawk.
palette knife oil painting
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.
That includes Alma LaFrance of Huntington, MA, USA who wrote, “I submitted two paintings for an Art Club sponsored critique done by a famous New York artist. The first was a considered landscape, which he determined to be ‘almost professional.’ The other a seascape, done with a palette knife. He said, ‘The artist was playing. It is difficult to believe these two pieces were done by the same person. It doesn’t rate further mention.’ ”
And also Skye MacLeod of Winnipeg, MB, Canada who wrote, “In the thesaurus under the word, work, is a list of verbs such as labour, operate, act, perform, achieve, produce and so on. All equal to the task so to speak. The word, work, is subjective and irrelevant when it comes to art. After all, we do what we have to in life. And for some of us it is in the arts.”
And also Dr. Mardy Grothe of Raleigh, NC, USA who mentioned one of his books, Never Let a Fool Kiss You or a Kiss Fool You (1999, Viking).”
And also Maxine Cassin of New Orleans, LA, USA who wrote, “Robert Frost‘s thoughts on vocation and avocation (“as my two eyes make one in sight”) have stayed with me over a lifetime.”
And also Sidney Julius of New York, NY, USA who wrote, “These two elements, the struggle and the sense of satisfaction at a job well done, are essential in keeping the creative fires burning.”