Can successful art be joyful?
Some of my most recognized work is work created during a time of pain.
I’ve shared this story before: how I painted two artworks just before a major surgery. The artwork was about that surgery. It was a way to digest and process what was happening to me. When I fully recovered from the event I had an opportunity to exhibit them. The two pieces traveled the country in a group show that toured the USA.
I’ve also read recently Big Magic. In it Gilbert talks about the artist as a martyr. It makes me see we have a cult of celebrating the starving, the afflicted, the unhappy artist. It makes me wonder: can we create art that is successful and joyful? Does “good” art only come from the dark places?
Hollywood sure does it part in helping us creatives seem afflicted, unhappy and disconnected. We’ve celebrated the lives of Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollack, Amedeo Modigliani… etc. These artists have art worth celebrating, but when we only publicize and discuss artists inspired by troubled lives, or who made art despite troubled lives, what message do we send aspiring artists?
Monet led a relatively normal life and much of his art came from a place of curiosity or joy of color, not pain. He spent nearly 20 years enjoying his garden, studying the light as it played on the flowers and water of his home.
Donatello worked from wealthy commissions that drove his content.
Mary Cassatt focused on relationships of mother and child.
Mark Tansey works from a place of puns and play on words.
We also have:
If we study the cumulative works of any artist would we find an equal or greater number of works that come from a place of curiosity, wonder or even joy?
Is it that we only discuss the hardships and thus, assume the works also come from a place of pain?
I know artists and art teachers who have shared with others, “you need to live life more to have something to say.” While experience is a great teacher, I sincerely hope they don’t mean experience more pain.
I remember considering that lack of life experience a problem when I applied for a prestigious MFA program. I thought it might hold me back from making “really good” work.
Instead of being a martyr who must suffer for their art, why not try on Gilbert’s trickster? Rather than suffer through a painting, how can you make it play? What would feel fun?
10 Ways to Turn On Your Trickster
(1) Next time you are struggling with something in your life, consider making the kind of art that makes you smile.
(2) When you are feeling stuck in a work, ask yourself: if this was a starting point for an entirely new artwork, where would I want to go with this?
(3) Create a painting only using your fingers.
(4) When your martyr comes out to complain, ask your trickster, “how can I make this fun?”
(5) Hide a secret message in one of your paintings that only you will know about.
(6) Trade a half finished artwork with a friend. Finish this new artwork.
(7) Create a game or challenge in each artwork. For example, “in this artwork I will only use primary colors.”
(8) Choose to work with an art material that feels really luxurious and gratuitous. Use it playfully, without a real goal in mind.
(9) Doodle cartoons about your sad or angry story: how can you make it funny? How can you twist the perspective to change our perception of the story?
(10) Ask yourself questions about your work: what colors does it want? What textures would be fun to include? What random image could I incorporate into my work? Let your questions lead to greater curiosity for your process.
Much of my recent work comes from a place of joyful curiosity. My viewers and collectors tell me they feel it in the paintings, too. Even when I’m sad, angry, or stressed I can come to these paintings and work on them. It channels my stress productively and almost without fail, I leave the studio in a better space, mentally and physically.
Despite the story of my award winning artworks being about a tough time in my life, I failed to note: while I was painting them I wasn’t feeling stressed, angry, or sad. I felt curious. It was a way to explore what I was going through.
The work isn’t angsty and doesn’t come from a place of anger or frustration, or even fear (and I was feeling all of those things in the few days before that surgery). The work was about being connected to source, and separating from that difficulty rather than wallowing in it; that sounds pretty trickster to me.
Gilbert is right: we don’t need to focus on martyrdom, or the pain and suffering of our life to guide or fuel our art. Let your art be the fuel to move away from pain and suffering. Let your art be a path to source so you can channel connection, intuition, creativity. Let your art be your curious inner child asking to explore the world around you.
BE COURAGEOUSLY CREATIVE: What artists have you learned about that led or lead “regular” lives? Tell me about them in the comments below.