Art and Existential Crises

Here it is, already February!.  There’s an old saying that tells that the older a person gets, the quicker time passes.  I know time can seem variable in the way it passes.  Just ask any hospital patient or prisoner, or a kid in trouble who’s waiting to see the principal, and they will say time passes very slowly.  Ask the parent of a newborn or someone on vacation and time seems to pass too swiftly.

I’ve been negligent to keep up with the blog, on one hand, and waiting to write until my thoughts have coalesced on the other.  For the past several months I have been going through what might be called a slight existential crisis, at least as far as art is concerned.  For a while I didn’t paint anything, when my gloom seemed darkest.  During this time I looked around at other artist’s websites, and I have discovered that I am not alone in my questioning of whether or not my efforts at art have any real or lasting value.  I have also just learned that my youngest sister has stage two breast cancer, and has just begun chemotherapy.  Prayers for her would be appreciated.

Painting isn’t easy.  Degas said “Painting is easy until you learn how to do it.”  How true.  If I’m going to be putting a lot of work and effort into something, especially when I live with chronic pain and often the work can mean real sacrifice of comfort, I would like to have a reasonable assurance that there is some good reason for the effort.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not asking myself, “Am I painting masterpieces that will last the ages?”  I crossed that bridge a while ago.  No, I have been asking myself, “Why am I doing this when it is so difficult?”  I’m a fairly private person who doesn’t need too much praise or the fawning of a devoted public.  The rewards I get from art are usually just the ones framed and hanging on my own walls.

My Brother and Me

My Brother Charles and Me, 1962

During this process of questioning, this time spent “wandering in the wilderness” so to speak, I have thought a lot about my only brother, Charles.  With an age difference of twenty years between us, we practically grew up in different families.  I am the youngest of five, and my youngest sister is ten years older than me.  So, I guess you could say I was an “oops”.  Right after I was born my brother moved away from home to go to university, and he married during his time at Texas Tech.  When he was twenty-three he discovered that he had what would be the first of many types of cancer, which would result in some thirty years of myriads of treatments, most of which took their toll on his already frail body.  Add to this the stress of his having one of his children born with multiple special needs.

What I did observe over the years of watching my brother battle cancer was that he had unbelievable drive and a will of iron.  Some would call it stubbornness, but it would help keep him going when most would have called it quits.  When he was in his late twenties, Charles discovered a fascination for photography.  He took this and built a commercial photography business around it, helping to support his family financially and filling an artist urge that I would later discover was a genuine need to create.

Example of my brother's photography.

One of Charles' Rodeo Photos

About fifteen years ago my brother finally succumbed to the effects of so many years of illness and died surrounded by his family.  The grief of the loss had a much greater impact on me than I could have ever imagined. The months before his death he and I had a chance to spend a lot of time together and get to know each other.  Somehow I think he gained a respect for me as a person that he didn’t have before.  Part of what he left behind was a collection of photographs, some of which I inherited.

During my time of pondering the value of my own artistic efforts, I pulled out a portfolio with a few of my brother’s photographs and asked myself some questions.  Why did my brother, who was so ill and had so little energy to spare, continue to work so hard at photography?  And then there is the big question…did he wonder what would become of his work after his death?

One of my hobbies is to look through antique shops for things I think would look good as subjects for still life paintings.  Often while browsing I’ll see an amateurish looking painting for sale, and I will think of the person who painted it.  Did someone’s child or grandchild “inherit” one of grandma’s or grandpa’s “works of art” and then turn around and see what they could get for it?  I know once I saw a painting of a clown in a small town antique shop.  That was doubtlessly the ugliest thing I have ever seen.  I almost purchased it just so I could hang it somewhere and tell myself when discouraged that I may not be a genius, but I won’t paint anything that could rival that clown picture for sheer ugliness.

But I digress.  As for pondering my brother’s artistic intentions, I came to a peculiar conclusion that has seemed for me the only satisfactory answer in my own case.  When it comes down to it, I have no control of what will happen to my paintings after my death.  They may all be destroyed, for all I know.  So why paint?  Because I need to.  Often I have to force myself to paint or draw, but I discovered that I would rather feel bad while working with my mind on what I was creating, than put off working and then be in a state of depression and guilt because I’m not working.  Even if the creative results are not great, I will at least have learned something new while working and have something to show for the effort.

I love the smell of oil paint.  It brings to mind so many happy memories of excitement over creating something new.  I’m an art supplies hoarder, and looking through an art supply catalog really gets me going.  The rewards and challenges of art are too many to enumerate.  For me it just comes down to this…I need to do it, and I want to do it, for my own well being.  If others benefit from it in any way, so much the better.  Unlike my brother, I don’t have to live with the pressure of trying to sell my art to support a family. Some people find religious expression through their art.  By creating beautiful liturgical objects that serve God and others by making a variety of devotional items.  I know that this was what I did for years working as a liturgical artist doing church restoration work and creating sacramentals.  I think religion was probably the first motivator to early artists, as well as decorations for places of government.

Another lesson I’ve learned is this: There is no “Art Police”.  They do not exist, except in one’s mind.  The rules and strictures I would place on myself while working about what to paint or not to paint, or how, are entirely self created and enforced.  That is another reason I have chosen not to seek out too much public exposure.  I’m terribly sensitive to the critical remarks of others, and I’m easily influenced by such remarks.  There is a local once-a-year art competition that I enter, and for now that is enough of a chance to place my work before the public eye.  Last year was the first time I had entered, and I was pleased to win “Best of Show” and “Best of Oil/Acrylic in Painting”.  I am planning on entering several pieces this year, and will post some photos of the entries after the show opens.

There is a fantastic book that I read about once a year called “Art and Fear” by David Bayles and Ted Orland.  I know I’ve mentioned this book before, but it relates to our topic and it deserves another mention.     I won’t say that I’ve answered all of my existential questions that have produced so much angst deep within my gut.  But, I make an effort to paint every day.  It is the one thing I do that I know is essential to my well being.  I need it like I need food or air.  It has been a gift that has helped me survive.  Like a book I once read about a woman in a Nazi prison camp called Ravensbrook.  The camp was so filthy and full of death and cruelty and ugliness.  One day, Betsie, as was her name, looked up from the frozen mud in the cruel early morning hours of winter and saw a bird flying overhead singing.  I don’t remember if it was a lark or a nightingale, but Betsie’s soul was transported, if only for a moment, and enraptured by the beauty of this bird and the sky in which it took flight.  Viktor Frankl, a psychologist who was imprisoned in Auschwitz and as a result of his years of suffering in the camp invented a new school of psychology for treating mentally ill patients, experienced something similar.  On a day of forced labor in sub-freezing weather he felt he had reached the end of his ability to endure.  He closed his eyes and pictured in his mind his beloved wife’s face, and pushed out all other thoughts except those of her.  He says he was transported by the experience and was given a respite and the strength necessary in order to continue.  He discovered only after his release from the camp after the war that his wife had already died in another camp before this experience.  He said that even if he had known she was already dead, it would not have mattered, because he still would have been able to contemplate her beautiful face and the love they had shared.  This would have been enough to give meaning to his life and a focus to this meaning.

My conclusion has been that I have to be reasonable about reality and my expectations.  I read a lot about other artists, both those now living and the Great Masters that have been dead for hundreds of years.  I diligently try to learn as much as I can about drawing and painting from them.  However, the odds are great that I will never paint on their “level” or on their “scale”.  When I was in Europe I saw so many masterpieces, and many of them were enormous, or painted on ceilings or walls.  (Not that I haven’t painted a few church ceilings and walls myself, some of which I am ashamed to look at now because of their amateurish quality).

After having answered the question “why do I paint and draw” to my satisfaction, I remind myself often, sometimes in a mantra-like fashion of my reasons, and begin to work.  I pace myself to work reasonable amounts of time and take a lot of breaks, so I can sit down and critique what I have been working on.  I’ve got a chair on the opposite end of the studio where I can sit and look at my painting or drawing from a distance, and contemplate any necessary changes.  And most of all, I am trying to become more patient with myself.  It doesn’t help me or the painting if I work myself into an emotional turmoil.  This isn’t easy when things don’t go according to plan.

This brings me to the end of this post (and you were thinking it would never end) and another book recommendation.  The book is called “Problem Solving for Oil Painters” by Gregg Kreutz.  This is an excellent book for artists learning to work through the challenges that can and often do confront them.  It is one I turn to time and again when I need an answer to a problem with my painting.

I hope that I will be better in the future with posting more often.  We’ll see.

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