When your heart first opens

Yesterday, as I was staining new baseboards for my home, I finished listening to an audio book titled The Roots of Buddhist Psychology by Jack Kornfield. “Art allows you to rediscover those moments when your heart first opened”, said Kornfield, and almost immediately I realized that he was describing precisely what I’d been endeavouring to do as an artist.

In his profoundly peaceful book, Kornfield speaks of approaching life with the eyes of a small child. For a toddler, every moment of every day is filled with the excitement of discovery. That child is absolutely devoted to that moment and she is completely present for it, ready to discover what it means and how it fits in her little world. As adults, we should strive to replicate those flashes of wonder, and pause to marvel at them long enough to discover what they might share with us.

Creating artwork is very conductive to that state of mind. Each moment spent painting, sculpting or creating an installation for a community project is exactly that; a moment of discovery and of presence.

For most of us, the very act of creating art is naturally conducive to presence and discovery. It just happens! You might start a painting feeling frazzled or distracted, but before you notice, three hours have past. And at the end, you’re surprised to find yourself calm and grounded. No matter what you manage to accomplish on the canvas, even though not every painting may turn out well, your mind has benefited from the act of creating. Your heart has opened up for that moment.

When you start your practice as an artist, you read and are told all sorts of things. “Know who you are and what you are talking about in your work,” “Have a recognizable style.” “Your work must be true.” I could go on and on, but none of this means anything until you, the artist, spends years of your life working. The work ends up telling you who you are; the work affirms what is true to you. You can’t guide your work into meaning; it guides you!

The collection of work that I’ve been creating for the past two years can fall under the title of “Longing for Lazy Days”. And now, after many, many years, I realize that each piece I’ve created is an attempt to recapture those days in my childhood when my heart first opened to those moments of wonder. In my blog, Longing for Lazy Days, I recall some of those happy experiences.

Today, I am simply grateful that my work has, over the years, guided me to towards this realization that what I need to strive for is the ability to be present and to maintain that sense of discovery that comes with an open heart.


Define Success

“The accomplishment of an aim or purpose; the attainment of fame, wealth, or social status.” Oxford Dictionary. I can easily live with the first definition, but with the second… not so much.

When I moved to Calgary from Montreal 23 years ago, one of the things that struck me and made me rather uncomfortable was its culture of wealth. I was truly shocked by this obsession with money and possessions! As a child and young adult, I hadn’t seen people value others based on their financial status. In Calgary, it felt like that was mighty important and, for a while, I wondered if I should be concerned.

I eventually let it go, partly because, over the years I’ve lived here, I’ve met enough wealthy people to know that many of them don’t feel any more fulfilled and at peace than the rest of their fellow human beings. And, more to the point, as an artist, could I really afford to base my own value on how much money I make and how many people recognize me on the street? I don’t think so. That would be a sure way to contaminate my work with concerns that have nothing to do with art.

On Saturday, I attended a panel discussing the legacy of Alex Janvier and his group of indigenous Canadian artists. The subject of success came up and Jackson 2Bears, one of the panellists, asked, “Now what is success?” He went on to say “Success is to create meaningful work.”  And that’s the definition I can live with.

In her blog titled How Do You Define Success as an Artist? Lorie McNee shares the results of a survey she conducted with a group of artists. She categorized their responses in this way:
“Faith:  Conviction that they can produce what they envision, sense or get through a higher source.

Followers:  People who like their work enough to buy it or tell others about it.

Fame:  Publicity that draws attention to their work and attracts gallery dealers, art critics, museum curators and writers.

Fortune:  Income from selling enough work to support themselves comfortably without having any other source of income.”

Faith strikes me as encompassing creating meaningful work which is the foremost responsibility of an artist. Followers and Fame are about sharing your work with others, which I also consider one of the artist’s responsibilities. Fortune is a direct result of doing a good job at the first three points and should not be the artist’s main focus. When an artist spends too much time worrying about creating works that generate income, he gets lost. He wanders away from his own true voice. Of course we all need money, but the artwork should not be created with that as its sole purpose. There are many ways to finance an art career while your work takes its own sweet time creating a reputation that will eventually pay off. But remember: we’re artists. We can be creative in that aspect as well. For me, teaching art and working on community art projects feeds my personal art practice on many levels. And experiencing life outside the studio provides plenty of inspiration for studio work.

I still live in a society that over values money and possessions. But as an artist, I’ve had to learn to shove those concerns aside so I can create meaningful art because meaningful artwork doesn’t take root in greed. It takes root in experiencing the human condition and in the emotions that stem from that experience.


I make objects

Well, I make art of course. But that often takes the form of a physical object that I introduce into the world. I do it because I need to. I need to work with my hands and to relate to an object while it’s taking form. And for those of us who, as my friend Doug Newell says, ‘just love making things’, there’s nothing else in life that’s more satisfying.

Sculptures in progress, limited editions of 25

However, as a person who is trying to be mindful of how our society contributes to the constant assault on our fragile planet, I wonder sometimes whether it’s actually a good thing to add more objects to it?

I’m also just coming out of a massive de-cluttering of my own home. The house is big and we’ve been here for 20 years, and now the boys are grown and they’re leaving the nest. So, over the past six months, I’ve been dealing with all the accumulated stuff and wondering why I had it all in the first place. Should I keep all these objects? I gave a lot of them away to friends and family who expressed interest but, to be honest, now I actually can’t even recall what they were. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I mustn’t have taken much care in selecting all that stuff in the first place.

Sometimes I make computer images for project applications and it’s occurred to me that it might be a good way to create art without cluttering the world. But I’m afraid that way of working just doesn’t feel real to me – neither the process nor the result. For one thing, it doesn’t provide the joy of physically working with my hands. I love the way my back, my arms and my legs are engaged when I work. I love the way my breath responds to my body’s motion as it’s totally absorbed in the creative process. The idea of sitting in front of a screen for the day actually makes me feel sick to my stomach. I would have no relationship with the physical materials I love. Whether it’s paint or clay, paper, wood, plaster or glass, each one is unique and provides its own possibilities and limitations. So I know for sure that computer graphics will never be the answer for me as an artist. I think I need to remain in the physical world and to keep creating objects.

Finished sculptures and limited edition silk screen art.

But how do I maintain peace with the fact that creating objects is what I do? This morning I came across something about being mindful of the impact of the objects we buy or create have on others. And that simple statement provided me a sense of relief. I know that the artwork I create is invested with care and consciousness. I know that I’m present in the process of creating. I know that each curve, each colour and each subject is calling to me to be there, and that I listen. I listen to the work as it unfolds and I follow its lead. I’m a slow, thoughtful painter and sculptor who doesn’t mass produce, simply because each work needs its own time and deserves my attention for as long as it wants it. I usually have three or four pieces on the go at once. It permits me the freedom to pause for a while on one specific work while continuing on another, and affords enough time for whatever was puzzling me to reveal its own answers.

I realize that the trend now is to paint fast. It’s all over Pintrest: fast paintings that can be produced in just a couple of hours. And unfortunately it’s also encouraged by the commercial gallery system. They want their artists to mass produce, so they can rotate their stock and sell it at very reasonable prices. Although I have nothing against those fast paintings – some of them are excellent – I don’t want to work that way. In a fast moving world where an over abondance of carelessly made objects are created, I claim the right to be a slow artist. I claim the right to produce a limited number of art works every year and to put care and time into each of them. I claim the right to release into the world only objects that I feel will have a positive impact on those who will end up with them.


This is my friend, she is an artist!

I’m always surprised when someone introduces me as: “This is my friend Patsy; she’s an artist”. No one introduces their friend as: “This is John; he’s an accountant”. It’s as though when one is an artist, the person and what he does for a living are inseparable.

Me at work

I understand why the artist herself would feel like her identity is profoundly linked to her work. After all, she’s on journey that forces her to figure out who she is so she can one day contribute original, personal work to the world. As authors David Bayles and Ted Orland attest in their wonderful book Art and Fear, “…becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” And of course, as an artist, one is always on the clock, because everything she looks at and experiences is material for creativity.

But here’s what puzzles me: why would other people feel that my work and my name must be linked and announced at the first introduction? Not that I really care, mind you. I love talking about my work. In fact I’m a little ashamed to admit that I often do it until I notice that people around me are looking for a way out of the artsy conversation. But it’s intriguing that others feel my identity revolves around my work. After all, artists are ordinary people with ordinary concerns and ordinary lives. Aren’t they?

Me at work

This may be a sign of our times, and related to a general cultural view of what it means to be an artist. As Bayles and Orland go on to say, “… in the past few centuries Western art has moved from unsigned tableaus of religious scenes to one-person displays of personal cosmologies.” It used to be that the artist who created the work was irrelevant. Art existed long before human beings managed to over value their sense of self. I can’t imagine a cave dweller drawing an animal on a stone wall and exclaiming, “This is my work; it represents who I am and no one else.” Now, though, ‘artist’ has become a form of identity.

I’m convinced that our society has over inflated the importance of the ‘self’, the ‘me’, and the ‘I’. Social media reminds us of that fact daily. In reality, none of us really matters other than to the people who love us. And although I agree that the only way to create meaningful work as an artist is through finding your own self-expression, it’s never truly new or personal. And that’s simply because all of us are shaped by the world we live in. I doubt that any one of us can claim to be the only human being to have ever felt a certain emotion or experienced a certain thing. So, as an artist, whatever we create is always a result of a shared experience relevant to the time we live in, nothing more and nothing less. Maybe we manage to represent life in a way that is new enough to reach people at a deeper level, but that is as much as we can hope to achieve, and it’s good enough to be worth spending a lifetime working at it. Whatever recognition that may or may not come from the work we do is irrelevant and stands separate from the work itself. Personally though, I hope that time will prove that my work has been more important than I am.

Artists are flawed human beings aspiring to create pure work. Unfortunately, fear is often a major setback when one links one’s self to their work. “Consider that if artist equals self, then when (inevitably) you make flawed art, you are a flawed person, and when you make no art, you are no person at all!” So from an artist’s perspective, it’s better to not feel that “I am my own work” even though we work all the time.

$1,175.00

L’éveil, Acrylic on canvas

My experience also tells me that the artist’s ego too often gets in the way of the creative process. The best way to create is to remove all preconceived ideas, controlling forces, and grand aspirations from the process and to put yourself at the service of the work. You need to be, as much as possible, an anonymous servant to the art so it will emerge and guide you where it wants to go. Your own natural inclinations and the effects of your experiences will emerge naturally without having to forcefully push them through.

Maybe some acquaintances feel that having an artist in their social group is cool and it improves their social status. In my case, though, I’m pretty sure that my friends don’t really care what I do. I’ve known them a very long time and they’re not that shallow. They just love me – no matter what I do. So they’re free to introduce me as they please – just as long as they’re willing to put up with me talking about my work.

 


Painting walls; not the same as painting works of art!

I often tell my students that, if they feel they’re frantically trying to finish a painting, they need to stop! “Wash your brushes and get back to it when that sense of urgency passes.” This month, I’m afraid I’m being challenged to follow my own advice. Life is reminding me that being patient and at peace with how long things take can be frustrating, but sometimes you just have to put your head down and allow things to unfold at their own pace.

details of a new painting titled Flow

This summer we’re redoing the floors in our home. My world is in chaos. Furniture and boxes packed with ‘stuff’ have been stored in my studio for 10 days, but now it’s even worse. I’ve had to completely empty the space and won’t be able to get back into it for another two weeks! Honestly, I didn’t anticipate how unsettling this would be. I knew I’d feel inconvenienced, but it’s way more than that. It’s chaos; I feel like I can’t find myself! I have an endless list of things to move, to do and to plan. It’s like I’ve stepped on an ant’s nest. My husband, who’s usually the one to react to change, has become totally zen-like this month. “You need to surrender to the process,” he gently reminds me. I’m trying, I’m trying, but it feels like I can’t get a handle on it.

I went through a stage of ‘Honestly, I just want this done and over with’ to ‘It will never, ever end!’ I could feel myself losing my grip, so I started painting all the walls while the floors were off. After ten gallons of paint, I was no less frazzled. However, on the plus side, while I was wearing myself – and three paintbrushes – out, I was listening to a very interesting book titled In The Heart of the Sea, about the true story of The Essex, the whaling ship that inspired the novel Moby Dick. Yes, I know. Even I realized I was beginning to exhibit an alarming number of crazy Captain Ahab’s symptoms. His whale: my floors. I desperately need to paint works of art. Not walls.

So why does creating art play such an important role in making the most of life? It is what keeps me sane. It deletes chaos. It connects me to the world. There’s nothing else that can bring me total contentment like the act of painting, sculpting or drawing. Verywellmind, in the blog titled Art Therapy: Relieve Stress By Being Creative, lists a number of reasons why art making is a stress relief tool. My favourite is ‘flow’: “There’s a certain quality of being called ‘flow’ that experts say is very beneficial for us. This refers to a state of being completely engaged in something to the point of being in a near-meditative state. It carries many of the benefits of meditation, leaving you much less stressed when you’re done. You can experience ‘flow’ when you’re doing creative activities like writing and even gardening. You can also get it from drawing.”

It’s been 20 days… I’m missing my flow!

A flowing day on Lower Kananaskis lake, Alberta

I was discussing this with a friend who always has such profound insights about life and he pointed out that, perhaps, this renovation isn’t permitting me to be who I want to be. “It’s an identity crisis.” I think he’s right. When I can’t get to my work I feel agitated, as if I’m wasting my life by not doing what I’m meant to be doing; not being who I want to be.

But the timing of this renovation has caused an additional frustration because it’s happening in the middle of summer. Summers here are so short; it’s an incredibly precious time. There’s a measure of freedom that doesn’t exist the rest of the year. Things slow down, I don’t teach, and I can usually find more freedom to create following a natural, seasonal rhythm. I can take walks in the forest any time of the day. I can let my thoughts go where they choose without deadlines to meet. I just can’t bear to waste my summer catering to contractors and renovations. So, contrary to the advice I give my students, I’ve pushed hard, very hard, to get it all done before I leave for my mountain adventure in a few days. With any luck, I’ll succeed.

En route towards Rae Glacier, Kananaskis, Alberta

When I get back from six days in our beautiful Rockies, my studio will be ready to welcome me again. The mountains will have once again revealed my creative space. I’ll come back to my work with fresh eyes and a calm mind, ready to enjoy the rest of the summer.

 

 

 

 


Are you a painter, a sculptor or both?

Summer is finally here, and with it comes the very precious daydreaming time I need to let my work flow freely. Paintings to create, sculptures to finish and mould, and an installation project to put together; those are my summer work plans. And as I reflect on them, looking at the steps each requires, I realize how very different but, at the same time, how very similar they are. To me, they’re different in the creative process but very similar in their spirit.

The Rocker, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement, 6″ x 6 1/2″ x 5″

Many artists consider themselves either painters or sculptors, but rarely both. I play with all of it because each way of working provides its own reward and allows a fresh perspective from which to visit an idea. Painting offers me a place of further freedom simply because a blank canvas offers an opportunity to create a new world. Sculpture, on the other hand, tends to present more ‘material’ limitations. In fact, the level of ‘limitation’ varies for each material. Glass, for example, is a very bossy material that comes with precise rules one must abide by. But if you can put up with its neediness, it’s one of the richest, most dignified materials to cast. Clay is more forgiving, but it’s still not as free flowing as painting.

Larry Cornett, in his blog titled When it comes to creativity, are you a sculptor or a painter? approaches the subject this way: “Painters visualize and place their dream on the canvas. It can be anything they want. A purple cat? No problem. Clocks that melt and drape over tree branches? But of course! If they can imagine it, it can be. Sculptors have to be much more realistic about what can be brought forth from the stone. A granite block cannot reveal a fluttering red feather boa. There are limitations imposed by the material and the tools.”

The lovers, limited edition of 25, hydrostone gypsum cement 5 1/2″ x 5″ x 2 1/2″

And what about installation work? It can be anything you want, but it focuses on occupying a space. In that sense, the choice of material is guided by what is relevant for the space. Wikipedia defines it as “An artistic genre of three-dimensional works that often are site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space.” The installation I’m focusing on this summer is the final step of a community engagement project I’ve been working on since September. I will elaborate on it in a future blog sometime soon when I’ve seen the final product as well as the interaction of the community group with it. What I want to say for now is that creating an installation is an opportunity to focus on a concept, and share an idea by using materials that will best convey that concept. In other words: the idea comes first. The choice of material, second.

Communion, limited edition pf 25,hydrostone gypsum cement, 8″ x 8″ x 6″

 

After 20 years as an artist, I know I’m comfortable with, and even excited about, working with a variety of materials and techniques, but I realize that some might fear that this risks creating confusion. In my case it’s coherent with what I’m trying to express. All my current work has a common underlying spirit that is true to the way I want to exist in this wonderful world. Each piece flows with life and speaks of entanglement with each other and with our environment, no matter what the material!


A road trip to Alex Janvier’s studio

Alex Janvier’s work is at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary for the summer (June 16 to September 9). It is a major retrospective featuring over 100 remarkable paintings and drawings.  Here is all about my Janvier road trip!

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Alex Janvier, “Tribute to Beaver Hills,” Strathcona County Hall, Sherwood Park, Alberta, photo credit Corinne Dickson

When I asked Corinne “Would you like to come along with me on a road trip to visit Alex Janvier, one of my mentors?” I may have fudged the details a little. Perhaps I neglected to say that we’d have to drive six hours to get to his studio in Cold Lake… at the end of the highway… on the far north-east side of Alberta. And maybe I forgot to mention that Alex Janvier doesn’t actually know he’s my mentor. And I’m pretty sure he’d never heard of me. But nonetheless, Alex Janvier influences every stroke of my paintbrush.

Just look at his work: it flows with life! Somehow, the movements of colour take you into his visual world where a narrative takes place, and I’m both charmed and intrigued every time I see his work. But mostly I’m inspired to reach beyond my grasp toward that level of narrative in my own work. So yes, Alex Janvier is definitely my mentor – whether he knows it or not.

At his Gallery, nestled into the forest by the Lake, we had the chance to hang out with a large number of pieces and to flip through his new work. I’m impressed by how he remains, in his old age, a very strong and very prolific painter. His new work has lost none of the energy of his earlier compositions.

Janvier, born in 1935, is of Dene Suline and Saulteaux heritage. He was raised by his loving family until, at the age of eight, he was uprooted and sent to the Blue Quills Indian Residential School near St. Paul, Alberta. But because he had always been a highly imaginative child, the school gave him the tools he needed to create his first paintings and the rest, as they say, is history. He went on to graduate with honours from the Alberta College of Art and Design in Calgary where he developed a unique and recognizable style with influences from his mother’s and other relatives’ beadwork and bark basket-making. And his recent retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa  has made it clear to all Canadians that Janvier is among the leaders of a small group of masterful Indigenous contemporary painters who have built and maintained successful lifelong careers.

His career didn’t come without sacrifice, however. We spent about two hours with his wife Jaqueline and she told us that together they had raised six children and that some of those years were very lean. “So,” she said, “when money came in, I filled up the freezer with meat to make sure we could survive the next lean time.”

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Me laying on ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’, Rogers Place in Edmonton, photo credit Corinne Dickson

On our way home we stopped three times to admirer some of his public art. The most recent one is at Rogers Place in Edmonton. It’s a 14-metre diameter tile installation set into the floor of Ford Hall titled ‘Tsa tsa ke k’e’ or ‘Iron Foot Place’. I’m told it took 20 staff members six months to install the million byzantine glass tiles of the mosaic that depicts the natural beauty of the Edmonton landscape, and I’m confident that it will remain central to the soul of the city, its Indigenous and non-Indigenous history, its lands and its waters.

Six long hours home, filled with much conversation about our own careers as artists, inevitably led both Corinne and me to our own soul searching. How will we look back at our own careers in 50 years? Does Alex Janvier feel he has accomplished what he set out to do? Or is he surprised when he looks back at the work he’s compiled? Has he realized his narrative goals?
Being artists, we suspect that he knows how hard he worked and how focused and committed he has been to achieve such acclaim. And having seen his new work, we also suspect that his mind is on his next project; it never settles on past accomplishments. For creative junkies like Alex Janvier, there will never be enough time. And the next creative endeavor will always be more interesting than the ones already realized.
Corinne and I agreed. This is, indeed, a life worth living.


The Status of the Artist:

Everyone can draw, some of us very well. Some not so well. Does that mean that everyone is an artist? No, it certainly does not.

Pulse 2, acrylic 24″ x 30″

I recently attended a discussion in Calgary about The Status of the Artist, along with professional artists from various art practices including dance, theater, writers and visual artists. We were all invited to contribute our views on ‘What is an Artist?’, ‘How do We Contribute to our Society?’ and ‘What is Our Place and Role in that Society?’ Our goal was to provide information to the Alberta Government so it can develop Status of the Artist Legislation. I was eager to attend because I saw it as a first step toward an official recognition of the artists’ contribution to society and a foundation for improving the living conditions of artists. Most are still living below, or very close to, the poverty level. And no, it’s not because they’re disorganized and lazy. Well, maybe some of us are, but not in larger numbers than what you will find in any other field of work.

So? What … and who… is an artist?

There was no problem getting the discussion started; artists are passionate and devoted to their practices and the conversation was animated and interesting since many of us have very similar challenges and concerns. Most of us feel that the term ‘artist’ is used pretty loosely in our society, and that the actual profession of being an artist is not viewed as a very serious endeavor. But I guarantee that for those of us who devote our lives to the practice and understanding of an art form, it is serious and meaningful work. Maybe we should call ourselves ‘Professional Artists’. But would we ask the same of doctors and lawyers? Of course not.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 40″

Perhaps the ‘Artist’ title encompasses too many ‘hobby artists’ – those who like to do a little creative dabbling on weekends to unwind from the work that supports them financially. They may dream of one day chucking the job that supports them and being called an artist, but my advice would be to read my blog titled Naively Optimistic. In that blog I write about the challenges of being a ‘Professional Artist’. It might put a damper on some of that daydreaming.

Anyone can be creative, but that’s not what makes an artist. We need to do a better job at recognizing the training, the work ethic, the experience and the professional presentation of the work that needs to happen before one can call himself a ‘Professional Artist’. Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Outliers has popularized the expression “10 thousand hours”, the average number of hours one needs to invest in something before becoming good at it. Anyone who has attempted to be an artist will confirm that it takes hard work and dedication to become a competent and confident artist. Painting two hours a week and selling pieces to neighbours and friends doesn’t make anyone a professional artist.

Pulse 1, 30″ x 24″

Daniel Grant, in his blog titled How do you Define ‘Artist declares, “As opposed to other occupations that require a license, permits, state testing or even reported income, the label artist seems more like a value judgment….” He goes on to list a number of things that can be considered criterias required for someone to be called an artist:

an artist makes art. Yes they do, as much as they possibly can.

– an artist declares artistic revenues as their main source of income. Not always. A lot of professional artists hold separate jobs that support their artistic practice. But they should at least take themselves seriously enough to declare all their art related revenus.

an artist professionally presents their work to the public. Yes, they do. And that’s a critical part of a professional process. As an artist you must be challenged by how people perceive your work. It helps further your development and reflection no matter what the public’s reaction might be. And even though most artists start by presenting their work in non-professional contexts, (the church art sale for instance), they should rapidly move to jury-selected or curated shows to validate their professional status.

– an artist requires a studio or a professional working space. I have yet to meet a professional artist who doesn’t have a space dedicated to the creation of their work.

an artist is someone whom funding agencies call an artist. And there it is: the ultimate validation. Is the person eligible to receive public funds to pursue their career as an artist? Hard earned money from the tax payer cannot be carelessly distributed and therefore requires some serious boundaries as to who is a professional artist and who is not. The Canada Council for the Arts defines a professional artist as follows:

  • has specialized training in the artistic field (not necessarily in academic institutions)
  • is recognized as a professional by his or her peers (artists working in the same artistic tradition)
  • is committed to devoting more time to artistic activity, if possible financially
  • has a history of public presentation or publication.

And Grant’s final criteria is:

an artist is someone who calls themselves artist.

If you have read this and still feel confident calling yourself an artist, then go for it. But keep in mind that ‘Professional’ artists in your town, province and country work tirelessly to maintain their status, do you?

For those of you who would like to contribute your thoughts on the Alberta Artist Status, you can do so till June 30th 2018 though this Alberta Foundation for the Arts survey.

 


Is it Possible to Separate Art from the Artist? And Should We?

Can a misogynist, a racist, a rapist or a convicted criminal be a great artist? Can we value their work separately from our evaluation of the person behind the art? Should we support art done by people of low moral character?

When a friend challenged me to answer questions like these, I thought long and hard about the best way to answer. They’re appropriate questions, especially now. In the emergence of the Me Too movement, a number of public figures -who are also artists – have been revealed as having very questionable morals.

The White Horse by Paul Gauguin, 1898

I’ve stewed about this for a couple of days, and have realized that the question is just too big and broad for a short and simple answer. So, first let me start by saying that artists are no better or worse than others who live in the society they do. My guess is that that statistics would prove the proportion of good people and bad people in the art world in the same as in the rest of society. Second, it would be foolish to think that only people of good character can create good art. History is full great artists who had questionable morals. Charles McGrath, in his Globe and Mail article titled Good Art Bad People offers a long list of such artists including Picasso who was basically a bully, and Gauguin who had sexual relations with under-age girls. And yet I still love Gauguin’s’ work. Does that mean I support his behaviour? Absolutely not!

Maybe we’re confusing the meanings of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when they refer to people and when they refer to art. People are judged according the moral standards of the society they live in. And, thankfully, societal standards evolve with time. As a woman, if I had been born 150 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t have been able to make a living as an artist, although countless men certainly did. Today, we wouldn’t dream of this kind of discrimination against women, but for most of human history, women had no choice.

But art has no moral compass. A piece of art is either well done, or it is not. It either speaks to you, or it doesn’t. It either accomplishes its purpose – be it as entertainment, as social critic, or simply as a beautiful object. Or it does not. So the words good and bad are used to evaluate different things when you’re judging art or judging character.

And what about the link between the artwork and the artist who created it? I am an artist, and I have a personal perspective on that subject. To me, once the work is created and I have applied the final coat of varnish, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. It belongs to the world. The world will value it, judge it and allow it to live or it will not. I am perfectly aware that most of my work will exist well past my expiration date. In that sense, the work matters more than the artist who created it. Think about it! When we travel and see all the incredible artwork around the world, we’re frequently unaware of who created it. Some of those artists’ names have long been forgotten, and some of them may have had questionable characters. But their art lives on and continues to enrich our lives.

Does this mean I could handle having one of Hitler’s watercolours in my house? No, I don’t think I could. But I could look at it in a museum and appreciate the technique – if it’s any good.  

As a society, I don’t think we should discard artwork created by bad people. We should provide context when we show the work, but we shouldn’t destroy it, ignore it, diminish its importance or hide it indefinitely in closets solely based on the character of the creator. The art should be considered based entirely on its artistic merit.

Yes, I realize that this opinion is harder to defend when it comes to living artists. Gauguin has been dead for 100 years and he’s not personally profiting from his artwork today. He gains nothing. But his art lives on. But art institutions are entangled with the society in which they exist. If they promoted the work of today’s sex offenders and racists, they’d risk offending their public audience. Thus, living artists who are exposed as morally corrupt run a serious risk of seeing their careers destroyed. They are just as vulnerable to societal censure as all their morally corrupt contemporaries. If their work is strong and relevant, however, it will outlive them.

I, personally, want to decide for myself what I support. And what I don’t support.  No one is forced to enter a gallery, to read a book or to watch a movie. All of us can make decisions as to whom we give our money when we select artwork. I’m not inclined to create financial benefit for people with questionable values, but I am opposed to ignoring art that has the potential over time to contribute to society and to nourish people’s minds and spirits.  


Connecting Children With Nature Through Art

Laurent, doing what ever boys do!

As my kids were growing up, I encouraged them to roam free close to our home, where they had access to 600 acres of untouched nature full of treasures waiting to be discovered. Birds defending their nesting territory high in the trees, frogs basking in the pounds, and creeping bugs scurrying through the long grasses endlessly fascinated those little boys. They collected wasps’ nests, mushrooms, sticks and stones, and played in the mud pit knowing they would have to be washed in cold water with the garden hose once they got back home.

At the time, I did realize that most of my neighbours’ children weren’t permitted to ‘free range’. Many young parents collectively decided that outdoors was out-of-bounds. They had become convinced that nature was a risky place. But because my most precious childhood memories have to do with being in nature without adult supervision, I know deep in my soul that this generation of children is being deprived of one of childhood’s greatest pleasures. And that is just a shame.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase Nature Deficit Disorder, meaning, according to Wikipedia, “…that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioural problems.” 

Joshua, always climbing!

Louv affirms, “Today’s children now know more about the wildlife of the Amazon rainforest than they do about their own backyard.” He argues that “… sensationalist media coverage and paranoid parents have literally scared children straight out of the woods and fields, while promoting a litigious culture of fear that favours ‘safe’ regimented sports over imaginative play.”

Statistics show that children now spend, on average, less than 30 minutes outdoors after their school days. This even though spending more time outside, ideally in nature, improves kids’ physical and psychological health, and makes them more environmentally conscientious. In a world where humankind is endangering more and more species with its lack of care for the environment and its constant pressure on natural resources, I believe we all have a responsibility to introduce children to what we are at risk of losing. How can we protect and care for nature if we have no idea what lives around us? If we never feel the joy and wonder of interacting with nature, won’t we forget that we’re an integral part of nature, not separate from it, not superior to it? Our specie, as all others, is dependant upon the natural world, so it’s imperative that we respect it and develop a deeper love for it.

My boys are all grown up now but, sadly, many of my teenage art students are still not permitted to walk by themselves on the paths by the creek in my community, let alone to wonder around in the forest.

When several of those students asked whether I’d organise a summer art camp for them, I resisted the idea at first.   Why? Well, I suppose I have to admit that I jealously guard those precious summer weeks. We have so few of them here in Canada and I cherish the time I spend outside, creating my art and connecting with nature. But then, three years ago, I finally got excited about its potential.

Photo credit Jean Wallace

The idea of a Summer Nature Art Camp made me happy! I could take kids out into those 600 acres and encourage them to explore and daydream and create art. It was an idea definitely worth a couple of precious summer weeks. I’d still get to be outside and do art. But for those two weeks I could share the experience with kids who, for the most part, have never had an opportunity to spend that many hours in nature all at once.

Making clay faces during summer nature art camp.

Last year, on the first day of Camp, as we settled down for lunch under the welcome shade of magnificent spruce trees, an eight-year-old burst into tears. I asked her what was wrong and she said “My mom told me this camp was in your back yard, but now we’re lost in the forest!” I hugged her, trying to stifle my giggle because we were barely 15 minutes from my studio, and I reassured her that we weren’t lost at all. “This is where Cisco takes me for a walk every day and we’re perfectly safe.” By the end of the week, this little girl had survived ant bites and learned to pee in the woods. Plus, she had discovered the wonderful gifts that nature offered her and had used them to create her own works of art.  

Although the Camp is adult supervised, those who know me are aware that I am far from being a controlling person. Of course I make sure the kids are safe. But I also give them lots of choice about where we explore each day, and at what pace we do it. And I’m certainly not opposed to a few bug bites and stinging nettles along the way. It’s all part of the experience and it gives the kids more stories to tell when they get home to exhibit their artistic creations.