Painted children

I once attended a panel discussion on painting. Of the five panelists, two had given up painting -- one to study, and eventually practice, psychology, the other to organize senior citizens against the arms race. Their being on the panel made perfect sense to me. Psychology and politics are concerned with consciousness and response. Art is a conscious response. The woman who went political was herself a senior citizen who had had a long and successful career as an Abstract Expressionist. She had had the good fortune of finding an exceptional agent, one who loved art better than money, and her work had been purchased by several major museums. She had recognition and respect, as well as a family. A success. But when she spoke of her experience as an artist, she was surprisingly gloomy. ``Don't go into the visual arts unless you are compelled,'' was her advice, because of the long solitary hours in the studio, and because there will be few people with whom you can talk about your work.

Her words interested me. Writers give us ample images and insight into their lives, but painters are less accessible somehow. Besides, I knew what she said to be true.

I have always written. I have not always painted. I had yearned to paint for years but didn't get around to it until I lost faith in words. I felt that visual images had an immediacy and a visceral impact that the written word cannot have. What I didn't know but quickly learned is that most people don't have much of a visual sense, don't know how to respond when confronted with a painting, are afraid to say, ``I like it,'' or ``I don't like it,'' much less why.

I believe it is impossible to make a mark on a blank page or canvas without considering, however fleetingly, that someone else will see it. When you go to such brazen lengths as to hang your marks on a wall, to offer them as communication, nonresponse can be extremely disheartening. It leaves you with a furtive craving for the approval of other artists.

I think I can say without exaggeration that I have never had an earnest discussion with another painter in which the word passion did not come up. I would describe that passion not as a fever but a clarity -- the calm, intuitive knowledge that what you are putting down is exactly what you mean to be putting down and that your entire being supports it. Of course, not every moment at the easel is characterized by such purity -- still I believe it is the essential force behind art.

Despite the private passion and the conscious communication, paintings are very much like children. For all your care and pain, they will be what they will be and you must let them go. Perhaps they will do well in the world and your life will be easier for it. Perhaps they will be misunderstood. If their success matters, you have failed.

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