Commitment to a Life of Making Art
The first time I read the article about Gay Talese getting ready
for his writing day, an image of John Cheever came into my head.
I remembered reading a description of him sitting in his basement
and writing in his underwear. Clothing preferences of artists and
writers is the stuff of biographers, offering yet another layer
to be interpreted. The subject this month is about the decision
to "go to work" in the first place.
Pablo Picasso made his decision as a child to dedicate himself
to a life of art. A prodigy with family support and the encouragement
of teachers can do that. Some of us make the commitment later in
life and for reasons wholly our own. All artmakers' stories differ.
My reason for leaving full time teaching was not to become a writer
and a visual artist. The compromises necessary to remain where I
was became intolerable, so I decided to leave, ethics intact and
small pension in hand.
By that point in my life, I already considered myself a serious
practitioner of my other vocation, writing. My criteria were simple:
I wrote regularly and got my work published. In other words, I worked
at it. I considered every effort, from writing syllabi to writing
a book to making a poem, as opportunities to practice my craft.
I took classes and attended workshops. When I wasn't actually writing,
I was thinking about writing, making notes, reading about writing,
and reading others' writing. Every event that became meaningful
in my life was illuminated by the fact that I could write about
it. I always believed that being a writer is an earned identity,
not just wishful thinking.
When I made the difficult decision to leave full time teaching,
I thought the door had opened to the writing life. I already knew
from experience that royalties would not do much to supplement my
income. I already understood what it meant "to be a writer"*and
had my outfits ready for work: sweats or shorts and tee shirts.
I owned several long, swoopy garments for when I was invited to
read. At least one person appreciated my style, but revealed more
than she meant to when she said, "Well, at least you look like
A more challenging decision was to come a few months later. The
boat was rocking. I had not allowed myself the time to mourn the
loss of the "teacher" identity that defined me since childhood.
I needed to mourn that part of me that unpredictably connected to
students whose faces and words still visit me in memory; the part
that read students' journals and recognized their struggles and
their brilliance; the part that holds the image of my mother clasping
her hands in joy when I was accepted into a doctoral program.
It was in the thrall of this severe emotional crisis that my husband,
John Gaumond, advised me to return to painting after decades of
not practicing it. He knew that I was obsessed by art. Four years
of studio art in high school had burned an indelible mark in me.
When it was time for college, I had heeded my mother's advice that
"art teachers are the first to be laid off, but they'll always
need classroom teachers." I have no regrets. I loved teaching
but, thankfully, art became my life's motif even as I had chosen
security over passion.
When my husband suggested that I take a class with an artist whose
work we had purchased a few years earlier, I said, "You don't
know what you are saying." I remembered the large amounts of
cash I really didn't have going for materials. I remembered losing
track of time when I painted. I remembered the struggles and the
failures, the embarrassing pieces of work I had destroyed. The great
painter/teacher Hans Hofmann said, "You must struggle."
He wasn't kidding, and I knew it.
After my first class, I came home with the assignment to make a
painting using a limited palette. Under the skylight in the back
hall, I laid out the tubes of acrylics on the blanket chest and
propped the canvas board on my easel. When I squeezed out cobalt
blue and titanium white and mixed them with my palette knife, I
It's nearly a decade later, and I paint and paint and paint. Six
years ago, I used my life savings to build a studio on the back
of our house. I write and write and write. I could do other things
with my life. Some of them would even generate more money (and less
rejection) than painting and writing do. That would be nice. But
not nice enough.
There is such wisdom in the following excerpt from Joan Didion's
1975 commencement address at the University of California, Riverside.
When I read it the first time, I thought, "This is why I made
the decision to do what I do."
"I'm just telling you to live in [the world]. Not just to
endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but
to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live
recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride
in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother
to do that, I could tell you that the grave's a fine and private
place, but none I think do there embrace. Not do they sing there,
or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch
their children. And that's what there is to do and get it while
you can and good luck at it." ("Every Day Is All There
Is," New York Times Book Review, 10/9/05).
What makes artists and writers commit to a life of art? One answer
is: We make art because we can, and we must. Artists and writers
stories are different, and we inspire each other by recounting them.
A recent PBS program about Paul Cezanne told how disappointed his
beloved father was when Paul gave up law after years of studying
in order to serve his passion for making art. I watched it and wondered
what my mother would have said about my decision to leave teaching.
Stockbroker and Sunday painter Paul Gauguin gave up his business
suits to make art. Henri Matisse was primed (no pun intended) to
take over the family seed store after he finished his schooling.
Frida Kahlo's rigorous high school education prepared her for medical
school. One September day, as she began her senior year, she climbed
aboard a bus to go to school. The accident that followed has become
a legend in art history. And then there was the Dutch minister's
son, who became a preacher himself, but whose compassion for poor
people made him a misfit among his peers and elders. The pressures
turned him to another calling. This was Vincent Van Gogh.
Are you committed to a life of art? What are your biggest concerns?
Talent? Money? Fame? If you have comments, questions or experiences,
contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
For September, I will do some thinking on last month's promised
journal topic: themes in poetry.