On a bright spring morning in 2017 I got up and walked away from my art.
Over the past six months -- well, more than that -- I've been in self-imposed isolation. I have not written about art. I haven't entered my studio or picked up a paint brush. It took me six weeks to even clean my palette, and I abused the expensive Rosemary brushes I loved so much by forgetting that I'd left them in a jar of mineral spirits.
Why would I do such a thing, after having spent nearly 20 years working as an artist?
It was sudden. There was no hint of what was to come. I'd just shipped off several paintings to a gallery that would exhibit my work for several months. I'd paid all my art association dues. I entered the jury process for a prestigious show (into which I was accepted) and had just purchased a fresh gallon of oderless mineral spirits and several new tubes of paint (which are still in the plastic shopping bag at the foot of my easel.)
Why would I do such a crazy thing?
I think, looking back now, that I'd lost what had once given me joy. I gave away art books. Donated some supplies and still life objects, thinking I would clean out my studio. I sold several paintings from my website. Two other galleries sold older work. I Interacted with a wonderful gentleman who found two of my early paintings for sale in Portland, Oregon, purchased them for his "West Coast Artist Collection" and then researched the artist's signature. He inquired if I was the artist. I said that I was and sent him images of how the two paintings should be hung together. He was thrilled. "I knew it was you!" he wrote, as if I was famous, and I felt... nothing. I thought, "Nice, I'm glad he's happy."
And I realized something was wrong.
I knew I wasn't even close to being famous, but perhaps I was a fraud. Of course we all go through the "fraud" stage. It's almost expected as proof you're "real." "Genuine."
But when the "fraud" stage comes from a loss of joy, then it's more than wondering if you're real.
In the past eight months, I've been doing other things, and the distance those things allowed made it easier to see what I was doing with art. My insights are personal to my own experiences, but in general, what I realized was:
- Cultural changes in how people view and regard art have fundamentally changed over the past two decades. The demographic group interested in "Redefining their Lifestyles" -- those retiring, downsizing and discovering value in original fine art, cultural events, symphonies and theater -- this group has aged, certainly, but more importantly, the recession permanently frightened them into protecting their assets. These were the people who enthusiastically supported the galleries that no longer exist. The many artists who supplied those galleries. It's a demographic that disappeared and was replaced by an entirely different demographic looking for a different experience. Which makes it difficult to proceed with business as usual.
- Technique is paramount over enthusiasm, emotion, effort. It doesn't matter how passionate you feel about what you do if your technique is not the style in vogue and at the highest level of accomplishment. Within the genres there are different descriptions of technique. Having painted abstract -- and been more successful at it than representational -- I know how the market used to value innovation and the evidence of artistic fervor. But look at the hundreds of thousands of abstract paintings being offered and you understand what I mean. Finding innovation these days requires working at the extremes and incorporating the cult of celebrity and everything that entails. Perhaps it's always been like this and I'm just noticing it. Perhaps I was too blinded by passion to see.
- If there is no joy, there is no work. For me, I lost the joy at some point and I'm not sure I will get it back. There are glimmers, of course. I have two old paintings sitting in my studio, one on the easel, the other on the floor. Both are resting in frames, waiting reproachfully for me to come in and reacquaint myself with them, fix their little flaws, bring them closer to the original inspirations. I'm not sure I will ever do that and I'm honest enough to say it's okay. Even if I've spent years supporting other artists and encouraging the idea of forging ahead despite the obstacles. I can still climb over those stone walls, but for the moment I'm not sure if I want to put in the effort. And that should be okay, too.
The most interesting lesson in this is that I haven't closed down this blog, even though I let it languish for six months without a posting. I haven't closed down my website, even though I've not uploaded a new painting in more than eight months. There's some reason I can't cut the tether; I'm not sure what it is, other than art has dominated my life since childhood. Creativity feeds my soul.
I remember looks of pity from art-educators when I insisted I was going to an artist. I vowed I would never fall into the trap of the disillusioned. I'm not trying to discourage my fellow artists now.
I do think it's healthy to step back now and again and reevaluate why a particular activity is important and then choose what to do. Healthy to realize others like you suffer with the loss of purpose and joy. Some will recover, others will find alternatives.
For now, I am choosing to remain in a holding pattern.
2018 will be an interesting year!