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.


Learning to be Afraid: becoming an artist

Broken, oil on canvas, 30″ x 24″

I recently saw a friend’s post on Instagram about being afraid and working through it, and since then I’ve been thinking about the time in my life 20 years ago when I had to overcome my own fear. But I’m pretty sure, that at some point in our lives, we all have to make difficult choices with uncertain outcomes, and that that process can be justifiably frightening. Sometimes, though, those fears can be overwhelming.

Life has been pretty peachy for me so far but, like everybody else, I have felt deep fear, and in some cases it felt like it was for no particular reason at all. Let’s face it: no lion has ever threatened to eat me! However, those nameless, faceless fears still find a way to bore into my head once in a while.

I decided to become a full time artist more than 20 years ago, when my first child was about two years old, when I started a day-home simply because I couldn’t imagine having to drag my own children to daycare every day. (Please know that I have tremendous respect for all the parents out there that have maintained a ‘real’ job while having babies. It’s not an easy task; it just wasn’t for me.)

Once the boys became less demanding, I figured that becoming a full time artist would allow me to keep working from home. But, above all, it was what I had always dreamed of for myself. At first, I was incredibly excited! I was going to embark on my lifelong dream and spend my time creating works of art. But a couple weeks into it – just about the time my former self would have been expecting that first paycheque for a ‘real’ job well done – fear arrived and made itself at home.  I was terrified.  I had no idea what I was doing, how to go about it, or what decisions to make that would at least generate an income that could pay for paint and canvases. Yeah, I know. Poor planning.

The colour of fear, oil on canvas, 24″ x 36″

But in my defence, I really felt that if I didn’t jump into it, I’d never make it happen. Nevertheless, as I realized the magnitude of the uncertainty I had created for myself, I started having daily panic attacks. They would always come in the evenings as I was getting tired, when I knew I had to make a decision. Then a very clever old lady told me, “No matter what you do, one morning you will open your eyes and it will be your 40th birthday. You can wake up as an artist or as something else you don’t really want to be. It’s up to you.” Clearly I had only two options. I could give up my dream and go back to a steady pay cheque with a predictable work path, or, I could stick with it and find a way through the anxiety.

Somehow I knew then I had to push through those panic attacks, so I thought I would organize myself around them. I stopped fighting, and instead welcomed them every day.  I made sure I was set up comfortably on the couch with a blanket, a glass of water and whatever I thought I would need, so I wouldn’t have to move. I tried to focus entirely on the panic attack. And when the waves of shivers and worries came over me, I sank deep into them.  I tried to feel them moment by moment, in every part of my body. I observed them, even if it was uncomfortable.  And, eventually, I came to love them.  

Diffusion, oil on board, 48″ x 48″

It felt that the more I relaxed into the fear, and surrendered to all the physical sensations that came with it, the more I felt a deep connection to the world.  Sometimes, flashes of clarity would appear unexpectedly.  Those felt like precious tidbits of knowledge I needed at that moment – precious life lessons I could put to use right away in my work and in my personal life.

Eventually, as I found a routine with my work, and the first stable sources of income came out of the work I did, I grew out of the panic attacks. With the help of my husband, who is a pro at organizing work and immensely supportive of what I do, I created a structure for my work, some goals, and a way of working that brought enough peace to keep me going. Since then, things have come together nicely and my work is largely fear free. Now I can use whatever fear that creeps back into my life as a source of inspiration for my artworks.

Today, those early anxiety attacks are all a distant memory. But my young friend’s instagram post encouraged me to remember and share my early experiences after I published last week’s blog “Naively Optimistic”. Maybe I wasn’t so naïve after all. Maybe I had a sense that being an artist would be more than a job; that it would become my life’s journey because none of the work we do as artists is done on the surface. It demands deep introspection and recognition of what life presents us.

More change will come in my life. I’m certain of that. In fact it’s just about the only thing that I am certain of! My hope is, that in the face of uncertainty to come, I will have enough wisdom to surrender to it once again, and to make the most of it, using the energy it will stir to create meaningful artwork.

 

 


Naively optimistic: the artist’s most important personality trait

“What ultimate quality does an artist have to have in order to succeed?” I could tell that my student’s mom, who was asking this question, was hoping that her son’s talent would be obvious to everyone and be enough to be successful. And that once he had a body of work completed and accepted by a major gallery, his career would take off.

If only it was that simple.

When the way forward is clear, things feel easy.

I thought for a minute and agreed that he does, indeed, have a talent. But I also know a number of gifted artists who gave up their creative careers along the way. Talent is not enough. So I said, “I believe that every artist has to be naively optimistic in order to keep at it. Because he will undoubtedly face rejection after rejection for years to come, and have to define his own practice with very little guidance.”

Any artist will tell you that, for a hundred gallery or project applications he sends out, he will receive only a few positive replies, especially in the first ten years of his career. And now that the web has made finding opportunities easy, this has dramatically increased the number of applicants, and the number of rejections.

He will also have to decide for himself how to find his way through the maze of the art worlds because there are many ways to be an artist – and many ways to make a living at it. He could be a commercial gallery artist who creates work that appeals to home owners and collectors. He can be a public gallery artist who creates experimental work. With in those, he can be a graphic or new media artist, a sculptor, a photographer, a painter or an installation artist. If he studies art in post-secondary school he might get a glimpse of some of those possibilities but, even then, it’s really only a glimpse, and it will require lengthy investigation and introspection to figure out where he might fit.

A lot of times, the way forward is unclear.

He will have to be comfortable with the unknown. There are few veterans of the arts who have the time to show aspiring talents the way forward. He will have to piece his career together as he goes, scavenging information and knowledge where he can find it. He will have to be adaptable throughout his career because most successes are happy accidents that follow relentless dedication and experimentation. Success relies on recognizing and chasing opportunities when they appear. Those opportunities are as much the result of risk taking and quick decision making as they are of planning and a dedicated work ethic.

Today the dramatic changes occurring in the art markets represent new challenges for all artists. The rapid growth of online sales, the decline of gallery sales, the new marketing practices all present new opportunities for the artist. They have the potential to put the power in the hands of the artist, bypassing the system’s validation. But today the artist is hard pressed to invest his energy in the right place at the right time… all the time. Keeping up is almost impossible and by the time he’s figured it out, he’s likely lagging behind the trend.

He will also have to develop an immunity from criticism. He can’t please everyone. As an artist, half the people he meets will dislike his work or be completely indifferent to it. Some might passionately hate it! (I still wonder why people care so much? It’s just paint after all!) There will be times when his best friend or his brother tells him, “I really don’t get what you’re doing,” despite having discussed it many times.

And I’m afraid that early in his career he’ll find himself living in a world that defines success in a very different way than he does. But that’s a subject of its own and better suited for a future blog. So, suffice it to say, if you want to be an artist, you have to be naive enough to face the reality of the art business and not let it get in your way. Most art school graduates around the world don’t last more than a couple of years in the art world. They give up for a number of reasons. To tough it out you have to ignore the difficulties, the unclear destination, the negative feedback, and the isolation due to your work being misunderstood. There’s a huge commitment required to establish your presence as an artist. You just have to keep moving forward in search of answers you may never find.

On good days, we feel that we are exactly where we need to be.

I say all this with no resentment or regrets. Twenty years into it, I love my job and would not trade it for the world. Over the years, an artist’s work leads the way forward and he discovers who he is as a person and as an artist. And as he does, people start taking him seriously and opportunities multiply. That takes time, a lot of it.

For me though, all of that makes the work worth doing. I’m searching, looking for meaning and answers and discovering more about life and about who I am, who we are, along the way. But ultimately, the answers themselves don’t really matter. The thrill of pursuit is what keeps me going. Because being on that quest for meaning is what artists do; it’s the ultimate joy!

 


Making Art: an antidote for today’s anxiety epidemic

Everybody’s talking about it these days. It seems that everyone I know feels anxious or is living with someone who struggles with anxiety.

My zen cell phone cover

In the blog The Anxiety Epidemic, they report that the American National Institute of Mental Health says “… 38 percent of teenage girls and 26 percent of teenage boys have an anxiety disorder.” And they go on to explain that “… this is partly due to incessant smartphone use in general and more specifically, their use for communication purposes.” And I’m now convinced that many grown-ups, like me for example, are equally susceptible to this electronic epidemic because just yesterday my dog, Cisco, made that abundantly obvious.

Cisco keeps me company in my studio every day. He sleeps under foot where I’m working and early yesterday morning I was interrupted by several text messages.   Each time my phone made a text sound, Cisco jumped up from his nap and rushed toward me as if saying “Hey! Grab your phone – it’s calling you!” After about the third text, I realized that Cisco and I both have been trained too well. Pavlov, I’m sure, would be delighted. I can imagine him bragging, “See! She’s almost as well conditioned as her dog!” 

Cisco dozing off under my studio table

Yes, I know, I know. Smartphones are here to stay. They’re practical little tools that make life a lot easier. But, as the blog goes on to say, “… they are having a deleterious effect on our mental and emotional functioning. People who use them a lot (and that is most of us) cannot seem to stay away from them and the research is pretty clear that one major cause is anxiety… we know that some form of anxiety is driving us to check in constantly with our technology.”

But what Cisco taught me yesterday was that we both need a break. He needs his nap at least as much as I need my art. That’s when I can be totally immersed for hours at a time, and emerge completely invigorated by the creative process. I finally realized that when I’m interrupted by my phone, my anxiety kicks in, so that when I try to get back to work it takes a while for the creative process to re-engage. Obviously, I need to turn the phone off when I’m working.

The blog Stress-related Hormone Cortisol Lowers Significantly After Just 45 Minutes of Art Creation offers a solution: Make art, it will lower the level of stress hormones in your body. It shares the results of a new Drexel University study, and quotes Girija Kaimal, EdD who is an Assistant Professor of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University. She says that the study results where not,“…surprising because that’s the core idea in art therapy: everyone is creative and can be expressive in the visual arts when working in a supportive setting.”

I feel that every day I work. It’s incredibly calming to put brush to canvas, pencil to paper, or hands in modelling clay. I can also see it in my students. Adults, teenagers and kids alike show up at my studio, many of them wound up tight from whatever is going on in their lives. And then, within 20 minutes of shifting their focus to making art, their demeanour changes. They relax their shoulders, they breathe more slowly, and they look and feel better. They’ve given themselves an antidote to anxiety.

Try it! Turn off your phone. Pick up a pencil or a paint brush or a lump of clay and go for it. I promise you’ll be doing yourself a favour.


Fancy Art People, Fancy Talk

How do you reconcile your need to push the reflection onto the artwork with the need to stay connected to your society?

Rêves d’été/Summer dream, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Last night I had a strange dream. I was at a fancy art dinner, filled with fancy people wearing fancy cloths and talking fancy talk that made no sense. My sister was there with me and she was just as lost. “What is this dinner all about anyway?” she asked. The other people gathered around her and whispered nonsense answers about what they though we were all doing there. But once again, it made no sense to me and the whispering thing was just so weird.

I woke up with a smile, thinking that was a strange dream! But I know very well that dreams come from our subconscious brains trying to make sense of the things that are troubling us, the things we experience during our waking hours.

A few years ago, I read a wonderful book called Your Sleeping Genius by Dr Gale Delanay. She explains, “Many dreams come in the form of sophisticated metaphorical thinking and problem solving. The dreamer wakes to remember powerful stories filled with symbols that seem to make little sense to the conscious mind and are often soon forgotten… but you can learn how to make good use of what your dreaming brain is trying to tell you.” At the time, I had followed her dream interpretation technique for a few months and it had been a very enlightening experience. It helped me to identify things that scared me and to recognize my own metaphors, most of them fished out of childhood experiences. In light of last night’s dream, though, I think I need to read that book again!

But let’s attempt to make sense of this: the fancy art people with the fancy nonsense talk. In real life, my experience of art people is not that at all. Okay, maybe there are a few snobs here and there, but for the most part art people are wonderful. They’re generous, welcoming, interesting and humble, so it seems like the dream wasn’t so much about the people. Maybe the dream is more about me. I might be worrying about getting lost as I try to explain the work I do. And maybe it’s also about my strong desire to stay connected to people.

$450.00

Repos/The rest, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

Let’s start with ‘explaining what I do’. Today, artists have to write about their work in depth, and preparing an artist statement requires deep reflection on ‘why I do the work I do’. This has never been a problem for me. In fact I quite enjoy the process when I think and write about the meaning of my work. But I often wonder how far I want to push this reflection. Too often that process becomes so abstract that it only makes sense to the artist who writes it. When does it become ‘art speak’

In the blog called What The ??? is Art Speak?, there is mention of an essay titled “International Art English” by David Levine and Alix Rule where they attempt to scientifically prove that the internationalized art world relies on a unique language which “…has everything to do with English, but is emphatically not English.” One of their conclusions is that International Art English, (which is what they call art speak), is used by proponents to both identify each other and signal their insider status in the rarefied world of the elite.”

I know I really don’t want to be a part of that rarefied art world. I’m more than happy to push the reflection on my art; I know I need it for my own professional development. But I really just want to create art and be in the moment when I do it.

Chasseur de rêve/Dream Chasser, oil on canvas, @Patricia Lortie

And ‘my desire to stay connected to people’? Although I enjoy being alone most of the time, those who know me well realize that I’m a people person. Not in the sense that I need people around me a lot, but in the sense that I love interacting with them and that I do appreciate and respect who they are. One of my mentors, Serge Murphy, once told me that as an artist evolves in his practice he becomes more and more isolated, simply because pushing the reflection on his own work creates a greater and greater gap between what he does and what people instinctively understand about art. I don’t really know how to reconcile those two motivations. I only know that, as an artist, I need to keep reflecting on my work. But I also know that I have no desire to feel separated from the society I live in, regardless of whether people understand what I do.

I’m afraid that dream did nothing to provide me with answers. I still have to learn to reconcile those two needs. But maybe that dream was just the beginning of my subconscious reflection. I can hardly wait for my sleeping brain to figure it out!


“Did you sell a lot?” The most boring question you can ask an artist

I have been a full-time artist for over 20 years. I’ve had periods in my career where I easily sold many, and I’ve had periods when sales were slow. And yes, like everyone else, I love getting well paid for what I do. But that’s never the reason I create my work. However, inevitably, after a show is over, I’m asked, “Did you sell a lot?” And no matter what the sales might have been, that question always makes me cringe because the answer never comes close to enlightening anyone about anything.

L’Éveil, acrylic on canvas

Katie Ohe, a very successful artist with a very long career, once wisely told me that “what defines an artist is the need to be an artist”. You become an artist because you need to create all the time. Because anything else you try to do feels insignificant and empty. Because not a day goes by where you don’t actively crave time to use your tools to add something new to the world – whether it’s by pencil, paper, paints, clay, computer, or power tools.”

Artists live in a world of creation and what interests us is what we can create next using the experiences we’ve accumulated through all we have created before. Most of us fantasize about hiding in our studios and having the luxury of selling our art only to support the creation of new artwork. Selling is never the ultimate goal; it’s a means to create more.

So, if someone asks me about a show or about my career, I’m always puzzled by “Did you sell a lot?” Did I sell a lot? Is that really what you’re interested in knowing? I realize that people wish me success and that, some times, that is where that questions is coming from. But my honest answer is that the question has no relevance. And the answer has nothing to do with me, or the world, and proves nothing about the quality of the work. It also closes the conversation. It tells me that you have no interest in the quality of the work itself. Your only interest is in its marketability. It ignores all the thoughtful considerations that went into creating it.

If the artist says, “Yes, I sell tonnes,” what does that mean? Does it mean she spent a lifetime getting her work out there and that it’s finally collectable? Does it mean it matches the colours that are trendy in this particular home-decorating era? Or maybe it means the subject is neutral enough that people feel comfortable hanging it in their homes.   If the artist says, “No, I didn’t sell much” what does that mean? Does it mean the work is no good? Does it mean the artist is poor at marketing? Does it mean his work is not yet understood or recognized? And frankly who gives a damn?

Selling a lot may only be a sign that the work somehow fits into the most common taste denominator where the artist is exhibiting. It may say that the economy is in good shape since artists, like cleaning ladies, are among the first to suffer when the economy tanks and the last to recover when the market improves. But one thing is for sure: sales don’t have anything to do with the quality of the work.

Rêves de jours paresseux, show at the CAVA gallery, photo creditJanet Sacille

When you look at the work, ask yourself the some questions. Is the work technically well executed? Is what the artist presenting profound? Does it move you emotionally? Has it enlightened you, excited you, encouraged you to wonder? Do you see that the collection is thoughtfully working toward a theme?

 

In a society that over values money, it’s easy to confuse selling with quality. I see a lot of poorly executed shallow artwork that sells, and a lot of magnificent inspired work that doesn’t sell. Personally, I prefer to create the latter and hope that people recognize its worth.

As Gail Gregg says in her blog, How to talk to an artist ,” if you are a person who appreciates art but doesn’t know much about what it means to create it, the first thing to do when you attend a show should be to stand quietly in front of a work, look carefully, and think about what you’re seeing. When you consider that it can take weeks, months—even years—to make an art object, looking hard is the respectful thing to do.” Once you have actually taken the time to look and feel the work, interesting questions will naturally come to you. You might ask:

  • What were you most excited about in this new series of work?
  • Did you have a clear intention when you started this series?
  • In what ways do you feel this work has progressed in comparison to the last series?
  • What are you trying to share with us?
  • Is there an artwork here you are most proud of? Why do you feel that way about this one?
  • How do you know when the work is finished?
  • What has inspired the work I see here?
  • Do you know where you might go from here in your next series?

 

Some of those questions I borrowed from “Asking artists questions” by Carrie Brummer, but I think Gaill Greeg put it best. “The best question would be one that helps me think more deeply about my work and makes me see connections I hadn’t, or puts it into a broader context.” Personally, I just wish to have a meaningful conversation about art and life. And, art being full of depth and meaning; it should not be too hard.

We all ask the wrong questions sometimes and we all forgive each other for that. If you have asked me about my sales in the past, don’t worry. I’ve heard it so many times I honestly won’t remember it was you asking. So come to my next show! Don’t feel embarrassed. Let me tell you more about the creative process, the thinking behind the work, and together I’m sure we’ll discover aspects of my work that neither of us at first imagined.