“To the serious young artist, I would say: Fix your eye on the highest, gird yourself for the journey, and God speed! If you fall by the way you may at least fall face forward. And it may be that even you may reach the goal.” —Kenyon Cox, The Classic Point of View
September is the time, each year, when new students arrive in the Atelier and, together, we discuss how to gain the most out of the experience. This is my studio’s twentieth year and I have learned much over the decades about the traits necessary to navigate the path from student to artist. It is my hope that by passing on a few things I have learned along the way, I can help a few artists avoid the fall mentioned by Cox, face forward or otherwise.
I thought, as a young student, that I would only need a few foundation drawing classes before channeling my unbridled creativity into paint. I suppose, if pressed, that I imagined my studies as a series of assignments, with a clear beginning and end and that my passion was enough to propel me across the finish line. In school, success meant projects well done and ultimately a graduation, and as an artist, when I had a show, got acclaim in a magazine, or perhaps when I was able to support myself in my career. I imagined that when I ‘arrived’ I would know it.
I didn’t anticipate that becoming an artist was to be a muddled journey that was less of a race, starting with a shot and ending with a finish line, and more like walking a labyrinth- a tangled journey of transformation. To Travel comes from the word Travail, or painful or laborious effort. Mastery is hard-won on this artistic journey because we are not just learning - we are becoming. The traits necessary for this pilgrimage are different than the ambition, enthusiasm and energy that are the usual drivers for success. In fact, you don’t need to be extraordinarily talented or self-confident to tackle a labyrinth, you just need perseverance, to be teachable, have faith in the path and a little humor.
My studio is next door to an Episcopal cathedral and last year they laid a cobblestone labyrinth in the front garden. When entering the labyrinth, it looks like just a few quick steps to reach the center, however it is an illusion, I am led on a quick detour to the left. No matter, I think, because the path quickly rights itself and I am on track. The confidence lasts only a moment before I start thinking that its longer than I expected, when will it end, this is pointless - perhaps it is a maze and doesn’t connect to the center. It feels wrong and, at a certain point, I am no longer certain of my direction. But in reality, when I feel farthest away, I am actually closer to the center than I ever was. In the labyrinth, the only way to fail is to stop walking.
I have a dear friend who is a remarkably prolific, master painter and teacher- anyone seeing his work would envy his success and his technical skill. He has arrived. Yet this is what he wrote to me, ‘I feel I know little of painting or nature after passing on what little I’m sure of. Back to the drawing board! I wish to rewind and start my art adventure over, walk slower and observe more intently. Maybe I can start anew when I return home. This time without a thought of “the market” or needing to sell. Okay, that is my goal. I was thinking recently that if only I could be that child I once was, without a care or concern, drinking in light and wonder, feeling fully alive. Can we get that back for more than a few fleeting seconds?’
This is art as a practice, much more difficult, inspiring and transformative than I ever imagined. His goal is not success but something far greater, a deep attention and eternal appreciation of being fully alive.
Being a true artist feels like stepping into the labyrinth and never reaching the center, or reaching the end only to begin again. Art is a discipline and a practice, and none of us are robbed of the goal, if only we have a pencil to grasp or a brush to wield. This is true, to the same degree, on the first day of school as the last day of our journey. Only history will determine who of us gets to make significant contributions, but for us, perhaps it can be enough to enjoy the struggles and triumphs of the pilgrimage. The only people who can say for certain that the journey itself has been the goal- are the ones that have taken it.
And to all of you who are starting your artistic studies, however small, in an atelier or at home from a book, I wish you a year of light and wonder!