Hanging up the Brushes by Trevor Weekes
ESSAY Trevor Weekes
There is a perception that an artist will go on forever. The idea of hanging up one’s brushes is for most a horrifying thought and conjures up a vivid picture that provokes imaginings of impending doom.
This conundrum has been with me for a while. Not giving up, but wondering why one would do such a thing. When I decided to write something about it, I thought some research might be beneficial. To my surprise, although I don’t quite know why, there were many written pieces on the subject. Practitioners relaying their story, offering advice and comfort to the young hopefuls seeking reassurance that the life of an artist is one worth pursuing, wrote some. Of course academics presented statistics that reinforced the notion that the life of an artist is not one for the fainthearted.
But who wants to hear that? After all, what could be better than a job doing the thing you love, with the possibility of fame and fortune? For the seasoned veteran who has made art their life be it fulltime or sustained with some part-time ‘real’ work, the thought of monetary fortune or winning the odd art award is no longer what it is about.
The vision of my end was standing in front of a canvas; my heart has just given up. I drop to the floor (in slow motion) my hand held high clutching a loaded brush that creates a line of paint cutting downward across my nearly completed painting. The trail continues to the floor and a pool of cadmium red from my spilt paint jar flows across the floor emulating a crime scene. I am discovered days later in a prone position, clutching my favourite brush, with a smile on my face. But that was fantasy and perhaps wishful thinking.
Discipline is freedom, but that is hard to believe when you are struggling and lose focus. To make something worthwhile, there needs to be a challenge.
So what are the reasons for giving up? Why would you stop doing what you love? It is not always a decision made by the artist, sometimes the decision is made for you. Does an artist retire? I thought this was one of the only occupations on the planet that one does not have to nor contemplate retiring from.
I seem to remember reading that artist John Brack announced to the world that he was hanging up his brushes. At the time I was surprised and wondering why? The idea seemed sad and ludicrous to me. On my quest for answers I asked several artists how they felt about giving up. The general consensus was “I will make art till I drop.”
So, back to square one. The research revealed various reasons why artists throw in the towel. There appears to be two categories: mental and physical.
Under the banner of physical, the hazards for artists are many and if one were to read the tome ‘Health hazards for artists’ they would reconsider launching into this lifestyle. Years of exposure to chemicals take its toll. Even the physical demands will eventually catch up. Standing, sitting, lifting, chipping away at stone to name a few. The body rebels and screams out “I have had enough!”
Older artists are a determined bunch. Their desire to carry on is so acute they take their afflictions head on and carry on regardless. It is adaption and adjustment with as little compromise possible. Lloyd Rees in his latter years created powerful works despite the fact that his eyesight was failing. His vision provided limited information that was translated into mysterious, soft focus works.
As long as our four greatest assets are still functioning even partially, then there is a chance to keep going. The mind, the eyes, some limbs and the human spirit. If one looks at the age of artists in the past quite a large number died when they were young. But most produced artwork till they died. With longevity come more challenges.
The psychological side contains a plethora of small compartments. Any of them can send artists spiralling into frustration, self-doubt, depression, disillusionment, unforeseen obstacles, and inability to solve problems. Art making is a lonely one that is amplified if you feel no one really cares about what you are doing.
Blaming oneself seems to be a foil that then justifies giving up. “I’m not good enough; no one likes my work” etc. What is the point?
Plato firmly believed that the verbal language was the only vehicle of intelligence. That attitude is reflected in certain sectors of our society where art practice is considered to be an easy pursuit. This attitude can create doubt when validation supports art as a worthwhile occupation. It is said that giving up is not the same as quitting. If that were the case it would then be a matter of changing the goalpost.
Most artists long for the adoration, or the occasional pat on the back. The notion that one must pay their dues and accept pain and suffering as a tradeoff for the gift we have been given, may not be welcome. Instant success can create a false sense of security and that can be deadly. Every artist at some time or another needs encouragement to go on, although some expect that there is a formula, a quick fix, and instant gratification. There is no instant success. It is a life long journey laced with successes along the way.
To be passionate about what you do is at the core but it is essential to develop a strong work ethic and have the discipline and motivation when rationalizing the art of being an artist. Discipline is freedom, but that is hard to believe when you are struggling and lose focus. To make something worthwhile, there needs to be a challenge. Perhaps the words of Vincent van Gogh say something about that. “I am seeking. I am striving. I am living in it with all my heart.”
It is most likely everyone’s dream that they could indeed eke out a livelihood doing the thing they love best. In Australia, there are a percentage of artists who live solely off their work and have done very well. For the others this may seem that it is for the chosen few. To sustain a fulfilling practice, depends on what your expectations are and what you would be prepared to give up to sustain some kind of reasonable lifestyle.
The temptation to give up is shared by many and there is not one clearly defined solution. Do you get to a point where you believe you know it all and you have done it all? That may be two good reasons to give up. Georgia O’Keefe states “To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” While Erica Jong commented that “Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow the talent to
the dark place where it leads.”
Much is made of courage and it appears to be one of the components one needs to be successful. But does success ensure a long and satisfying career? “Success is not final, failure is not fatal – it is the courage to continue that counts” – Winston Churchill.
A number of successful artists despite what would appear to be an ideal life have taken their own life. Even Picasso in his dark moments believed he would never achieve Master status. I don’t think Picasso’s ego would have allowed him to quit, despite those moments of self-doubt.
I think on the whole, most artists want to create for as long as they can regardless of the circumstances. For as long as time itself, humans have pursued creativity and produced artworks that have resonated long after the artist is gone.
The stories behind the artworks may never be told and regardless of whether the artist only ever made one great work or one thousand seems to be beside the point. The work touches others in a multitude of ways. Isn’t that what it is all about?
Shine brightly if only for a moment.
01 Brushes 2, 2014, digital on watercolour paper, 21 x 29cm Courtesy the artist