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A portrait of the artist..
This art bug you all have, is it nature or nurture?
24 Feb 08 01:10 GMT

Well I can only talk for myself... it was certainly not something that was nurtured in the lower middle class background from which I sprung. There were no original paintings on the walls, yeah a few kitsch, framed prints from which I took endless enjoyment. Harbour scenes, wooded country lanes and the like... WOW! I loved them, the depth, the reality... how'd those folks do it? It was like magic to me. I could never get those effects with my crayons, but what and why made me want to?

There were certainly no art books, or museum and gallery outings for us. On Sundays Dad piled us into the car for an outing, my brothers and myself, Mom, Grandma and an aunt or cousin or two, where we'd head for a factory where he had a job going (he was an electrician) and he'd park and say he just had to go in for a minute or two. Three or four hours later of horrible boredom, terrifying arguments, tears and insanity, he would return to take us all out for a cheap Sunday dinner and then home for that horrible Sunday evening of Ed Sullivan on TV and the knowledge that school began again tomorrow and none of my homework had even been begun.

Comic books were my real inspiration and art education, not that I called it art or even knew what art was. But I loved them, they engaged my imagination and I copied the dramatic muscle bound heroes with my pencils and crayons, even Mickey and Donald and Goofy were worthy. Nothing to do with art, strictly adulation. The expressions, the movement, all the things that still entice me... sheer joy! All my school textbooks were covered with drawings and doodles and I didn't have much interest in anything else, yet I didn't do particularly well in school art classes, apparently I made the colour of the water in the lake where I swam brown, when every self respecting art class teacher informed me, to my amazement that in actuality it was blue. Although they caused me some doubt as to my own perceptions and sanity, I never really believed them and always trusted my own judgements, even though they gave me failing grades. You see, I was already a full fledged artist. At this point I was only eight or nine years of age.

It wasn't until much later that I found out that I had two uncles connected to art. One, a sewing machine mechanic by trade had pursued sculpture as an avocation for years, realistic busts and portraits abounded in his home, they weren't that interesting to me and didn't have the same effect that the comics did. I learned later that his political leanings had made him friends with some of the mexican muralists (like Sequeiros) and if I look at his work now, it's fairly impressive, somewhat amateurish ( because he didn't have the time or luxury to rid himself of the academic) but quite ambitious and serious in his later years. Also much later, I found out that another uncle had actually attended art college, not that he was able to make a career of it, but he did pick it up again in his retirement years.

Actually if I think about it, it was probably my Dad where I actually get it from and he didn't have an aesthetic bone in his body. If anything he was so non-aesthetic, it was an aesthetic. But as I said before he was an electrician and he was passionate about his work (like an artist), he loved it and he wasn't just a practitioner and master electrician but had studied every aspect of electrical theory and the science of lighting and despite working all the time found time to attend night classes every year to upgrade his knowledge. His forte was transformation. Manufacturers were buying and importing equipment from Europe and the Orient yet couldn't run the costly equipment they had purchased because of the differences in voltage and all kinds of things I still don't understand and were stymied, even after consultation with engineers as to how make them run and not explode in their new environment, of course they wanted to make do with existing transformers so as not to spend additional fortunes of money. And that's where my Dad came in and he wouldn't quit until he made things work. Everywhere he went he left a trail of strange looking schematics with little squiggly symbols and markings that looked like some language used by Martians. And I mean everywhere, on the insides of matchbooks and cigar boxes, napkins and anywhere you could make a mark but he wouldn't quit until he could configure the thing so it worked and he had a special talent that enabled him, where others had failed to do just that, at least that's what I've been told told by countless people who worked in industry at that time.

Well that sure sounds like an artist to me, completely obsessed and thinking in some convoluted manner of abstract and instinctual mathematics. So I've come to the conclusion that whatever "the gift or talent" is that I possess (I prefer "way of thinking") I inherited from my old man. So I'd have to answer my initial question with "It's just in one's nature and it's probably some kind of genetic defect, like a predisposition for cancer or schizophrenia". Now that's my story and answer... what's yours ?

01 Mar 08 18:05 GMT

I was 12 when we moved ,rather immigrated to the states.The only english Iknew at the time was 'this is a dog and this is a cat.'Luckily at school I was placed in an art course and as I already had an inclination to drawing ,the art class became the only place in my world where I didn't feel a fool in.Somehow the frigtening new world began to make sense and the ground under my feet steadied again.So I think that my art bug was already there but it needed the right conditions to be nurtured and grow.The fact that I was so frightened because I could't communicate with words pushed me to energize other means.
Hillel,I too inherited my bug from father who was a tailor and he freqently made some small drawings but life didn't give him the space to continue.

02 Mar 08 17:18 GMT

Fotini , thanks for taking the time to answer the question. I love your story about being an immigrant kid and your inherent art being the bridge to your new environment. That's terrific stuff and speaks of the fact that all of us here talk an uniquely universal language that goes beyond words. I especially love that you honour your daddy who was a tailor and you recognize the connection between your occupations.

That was especially the point I was trying to get at. I've never thought of us artists as all that special, we've always identified ourselves with the tradesmen and masons whose unions or guilds we belonged to. We've certainly never been part of the intelligentsia or elite circles until very recently when art (both the history of and the making of) became part of University curricula. So what I'm trying to express is that there are people, I call them artists and please understand, this is my particular stance on the whole thing, who have an innate gift for measurement. By that I don't mean that they simply know how to use a ruler or scale or other device but their brains are wired in such a way that they observe the relationships of things and can instinctually analyze and construct in their mind's eye. These people recognize their connection to their fellow workmen and artisans.

And then I suspect there are those for whom these things don't matter a hoot and these folks might well come out of today's universities' art history and fine art programs. I would really love to hear from these people, particularly because my understanding and their's might prove to be so divergent.

Well from what I get from your answer and once again I thank you for answering and not being just another art wimp, is another resounding "yes" for nature versus nurture... you got it from your dad, a tailor ("measurerer" and artist). Thank you for that. Now howzabout someone else... please tell us your stories, you must have thought about it. Was it inherent and in your family? You've now heard from two different people who say, basically "Yeah it was the family". That's where they got their bug from. Any one else? I'd love to hear more, yet somehow doubt that I will. How about someone with no visual art genetic connections who just became inspired from out of the blue that they wanted to be an artist.

10 Mar 08 18:39 GMT

The first drawings I made were of ice scatters when I was five. From TV - living in Greece you don’t get to see frozen lakes quite that often. I was fascinated by the movement of their skirts made of waving strips of cloth and the way their bodies slid weightless on ice.

Actually, before that, I had once drawn a rider on a horse and my mother rushed me to this art teacher lady, as she was impressed by the fact that one of the rider’s legs was actually drawn behind the horse’s body. I ended up getting really angry at this teacher and thought all artists were conceited old bustards. At the time I thought that that lady had been very rude to turn my mom down by saying that a three-year-old is far too young for art lessons. Plus I thought she had no taste whatsoever for dining room table cloths.

The story after that is more or less common to most of us. Went on drawing and painting and was made to draw all the posters for school parties and eventually got a teacher and so on. But to add to Hillel’s point of view I would like to say that yes it is indeed about this special gift to observe the relationships of things and instinctually analyze and construct in the mind's eye, and yes, in my case too it came from the family. There were people in the family who drew all right, but when I look for someone to attribute the special way of conceiving things, I end up with my grand father’s figure. He was not a craftsman or artisan or such. He was an ophthalmologist; an eye surgeon. But he was wise. He was wise when it came to the harmony of things and necessary balance. And he was on a constant quest for the most complete way of tasting life. He had a taste for good food and good drink and good smoke and good sex and good, intelligent, interesting conversation. And justice. Not in the moral sense of the word but in the sense of natural law. The world goes round still because of a certain way things connect. He who opens his chest to the rhythm of natural balance can eventually compose uncountable new melodies. In any sort of medium.

As there are good and bad artisans, there are good and bad artists. Likewise, there are people who live their lives and people who miss the whole point of it. In my family there are both kinds. Fortunately I have lately come in touch with a branch of my grandfather’s side I didn’t quite know. There have been some deaths - others recent and others happened years ago. The relics of these people’s lives have reached me in form of old libraries, and poetry manuscripts and musical instruments in need of dusting and care. I have lately become aware of the presence of certain beings who must have formed my genetic code or at least must have enriched the back of my childhood’s head with the eco of their thoughts.

I have come to believe that things always happen when the right time comes to attentive people’s lives. I am grateful for that. And, yes, my dearest Hillel, I do feel special. So do you.

10 Mar 08 20:17 GMT

Hillel and all, I loved to read your stories!!! That’s phantastic. When reading about your dad being so involved into electrics the novels of Phillip Roth came to my mind. All the stories about those fathers being experts in making gloves or whatever else and of course the way they were seeing what they were doing as a kind of art. And in the meaning of the word it actually describes something being done expertly and with much skill.
Looking back on my own story there is no doubt about it for me that it is one’s nature, the given skills and as the most important thing the way af thinking or feeling that makes one an artist in the first place just as you have said.
Well, in my subjective feeling I have been drawing from the first day of my life. Not with a pencil of course but with my eyes in just following the lines of all things surrounding me with my eyes as with a pencil, writing them into my mind this way and trying to understand them this way.
I haven’t really grown up in a family but in an endless line of orphanages or other institutions one worse that the other. No one ever talked to me exept instructing me to behave or to wash my hands before dinner or just to be at the table in time. And I had no friends, for changing those institutions that often I always was the new one that hat to be tested out physically what meant to be knocked down or being held in headlock for what seemed to be hours and this every single day. So the only way to survive all this ordeal was to withdraw into my skull, my mind, my submarine building my own world in copying everything I saw with drawings or building little models of ships or carryages or whatever. And I had to it often for within hours everything I had done so far was being destroyed by the other boys or those catholic nuns who run those homes and who thought all what I did as being pure nonsense and a wast of time.
The rare moments I spent in my family I was attracted by my grandfather. A small thin man (who was being seen as a fool hinself by the other members of the family as well) who was a clerk in some state institution but in his private time wrote about history. Not the world history about kings and their wars but the history of his home town. And he made drawings. That were mostly coats of arms which he did very precisely. So I spent lots of time in his odeur of glue and paper and I loved it.
When I finally came back into my family permanently when I was twelfe I found a model in my uncle who was an ingenieer working at a shipyard. Of course I never did see what he was doing there but I witnessed what he did at home, in his very small cellar room. There he worked as a goldsmith and very early I learned lots of things about working with metal in just copying him. And he did photographs with all the develloping and printmaking etc. he was also interested in poetry (later I found out that he had a very kitschy taste). Well and he had a huge print in his living room: Ta Matete from Gauguin. Gauguin! Whow! So this was my version of Maria’s uncle. And I learned that there was another uncle or granduncle who had been an architect and I spent lots of lots of time in front of those three small watercolour landscapes he had done that hung in my grandfathers room and from which I thought that it was neary impossible to such a thing.
Well, my school career was very similar to what has been described from you already. The only things that were bearable were the art classes, the history classes and biology. Of course I too had to do all the drawings for my classmates and producing all the invitation cards or placards or making nice drawings for those little albums all the girls had at that time.
So for to cut a long story short it was my nature in the first place, that what I had inherited from some members in my family, that made me want to be at places or in situations or with people that had to do with someting close to art or craft. I never really got an education in this exept when I finally attended art school. But even then it was only for to enhance what was already there. And I didn’t exactly learn from being told but from practising and doing it by myself. It’s the way you look at things, the way you understand them, the way you feel about what is surrounding you what makes you an artist. The craft only helps you making it become real. And theory ... well that’s just theory.

11 Mar 08 17:49 GMT

I think that it is both nature and nurture that creates the artist in us. We are all inherently part of nature. We can't deny it. It is in our nature to want to create whether it be to create a family or to create a place for ourselves in this universe. We all have this desire. Whether that instinct is nurtured in us or not creates the outcome. I was lucky. My parents saw in me the need to create (I watched Bob Ross every Saturday morning when I was 7-10). My parents finally bought me the complete Bob Ross kit and the spark started there. I was faithful and every Saturday I would set up my easel in front of the T.V. and do exactly as he did with cadmium yellow, thalo blue, etc. I had my fan brush at the ready, and I had so much fun... it didn't matter then how they turned out. So for me it was in my nature to create and that creative outlet was painting. It started with an interest in the television show, and my parents nurtured that spark in me. I suppose we should all be so lucky to have such supportive parents. Sometimes the nurture doesn't need to be supportive. In some cases it could be a rebellion that is nurtured in the soul to create... for example if society, as it often does, shuns artistic ability; or if your parents tell you you can't paint; or if everyone you encounter pushes you down, that can be the catalyst that makes you create art despite what you are told by others. You can be your own nurturer as long as you recognize the nature in you to create and act on it.

Just some ideas, spur of the moment.


13 Mar 08 24:43 GMT

Its very gratifying to see some terrific responses to this topic. Maria I love your story about being rushed to an art teacher (some very funny stuff). I like the link you make between what your grandfather valued as being good in life and what you desire from your life as an artist. I can feel your grandfather's tactile yet profound enjoyment of life in your work.

People of your generation and I think this includes Abby, were given I suspect, and as you both seem to confirm, a certain permission that wasn't there when and I was young. I think Hanjo will agree with this, art school and the pursuit of a career in art was generally viewed as a complete waste of time, for crazy people only. Not only "useless", Hanjo's nuns might have even said " the devil's work". That your parents didn't try to dissuade you and even encouraged you is very interesting to me.

Hanjo's writes poignantly of his early youth, of course I don't know the circumstances, but the orphanages, the loneliness and bullying in the early years have to have a lifelong effect. The sadness never leaves but its probably what also gives power to Hanjo's work. And it occurs to me that something like that and the need to express or visualize certain feelings could easily be a factor in sparking the inner artist. Artists are for whatever reason extremely sensitive people. And in that way (I agree with you, Maria) we are "special". We have lively minds and we recognize each other when we see each other. But just as manic depressives pay for their highs with extreme lows, we pay a heavy price for our hyper sensitivity. We absorb all of our experiences, the good and the bad, very deeply. All these stories are fascinating and I think we have to keep telling them to each other because they are what connect us to each other and enrich our art. All you others out there, please join this conversation, let's hear your opinions and stories.

13 Mar 08 16:55 GMT

I was supported in doing art and being creative by my parents, but they supported me in so far as it was a hobby. My parents had artistic hobbies too, but they always maintained that it was not a viable source of steady income. I needed to have something to fall back on. I was not encouraged to go to art school... I was encouraged to at least teach. Uggg. So my nurturing parents only took me so far. I had a drive to break out and not do what was expected of me. I had to become my best supporter. There have been times where there were obstacles to overcome. Not having the money for canvas, but I always found a way to continue painting. That part of me was my nature.

Peace Abby

19 Mar 08 19:47 GMT

Well, Hillel’s initiative to go back into one’s own past did not only made me chewing on my memory but also painting a triptych today (Quick brush action). He’s absolutely right that the past has it’s effects on our every days life. So the painting, that can be seen in the portfolio section, is a very personal statement about sadness. So thank you Hillel for igniting some brushwork.

20 Mar 08 17:20 GMT

Glad to have been of service, Hanjo. The main thing I was trying to say was that we are the sum of our experiences that have shaped our personalities. These deeply felt feelings, often arise from our earliest and formative encounters with some outstanding event. That sense of tragedy, happiness, impending doom or contented security and so on, is so much a part of us that it becomes the main focus of our expression. I'm not implying that we need to illustrate or reconstruct particular events. The feelings is so strong it will come through in anything we do, there is no hiding it or masking it. A while back I seem to remember some talk amongst yourself, Karen and Maria about the use of narrative in art and perhaps your Madrid "Paula Rego" experience was causing you to rethink the issue. Personally I don't concern myself with narrative because my story will come through unconsciously in any case. Some people look at art, abstract or realistic, constantly seeking narrative interpretation. The meanings and allusions they find always surprise me because I just look at a painting as a painting, formally I suppose, feelings arise but they're usually wordless. Then again I only listen to instrumental music, lyrics annoy me.