Friday, July 3, 2015

Hard Life Lessons from (or for?) an Elder Artist, Part I

***In order to protect the privacy of V the artist, no photos will be used in this series of blog posts***

I am a true believer that people come into our lives for a purpose. Sometimes, it's more like a lesson. Sometimes it's our lesson. Sometimes, it's theirs.

Other times, both.

I met V years ago, when I was still burning the candle at both ends, juggling working full-time with single parenting and the idea that if I kept striving and pushing hard enough, I'd become well-known  for my art.  It was exhausting, and seems so futile now when I reflect upon it, but I was less than five years out of art school and still identifying strongly with the struggling artist ideology so drilled into me there. And my hard work paid off; I enjoyed successes such as selling work, receiving commissions, having solo shows, being a part of group shows, and having my art featured in publications. Once I even sunk a ton of money into a line of greeting cards that were picked up by a prestigious shop in Atlanta.

In the midst of all of this, I met V and her husband. Both artists in their late 60s, they were an eccentric couple who had lived a nomadic, bohemian lifestyle supporting themselves solely by art-making, sacrificing a lot of the now for the hope of fame and fortune in the future. Their paintings were nothing short of masterpieces; they both possessed dynamic technical skill and vision. Visiting their home made me feel like I was in the presence of true artistic genius. I listened to stories of their lives and romanticized it all.

They left the area after a short time, when my son was about four. In the years that followed, I discovered yoga and knitting, almost simultaneously, and my entire perspective on life, art, and creativity shifted. That's a blog for another day. Though I am much, much happier now, occasionally I've had twinges of doubt about the complete skin shedding I did during this time.

Enter V back into my life. 6 months ago, I received a surprising email. She was back in the area and had been for some time. Her husband, sadly, had passed away unexpectedly at the age of 72. V was living alone in a rural area about an hour's drive from me.

Alone, with about 50 paintings and dozens upon dozens of drawings for company.

I wasted no time visiting her, but was disheartened by what I found. Because the couple held out for fame, they had bypassed possible fortune - or at least living wages - many times, refusing to sell art for less than 4 or 5-figure prices or accept commissions. Jobs in creative fields were turned down. When V's husband died, they were channeling most of their energy into being 'discovered'. Both the creating of the work and the attempts to market it took a lot of time, so there was not much left over for things like making friends and building relationships with other artists, often essential networking in the field. V readily admits that the two of them isolated themselves from the rest of the world. Just one another and art - it would have sounded like a dream to the 20-something me.

The reality, however, is far from dreamy. V is struggling now, emotionally and physically. They chose not to have children so they could dedicate themselves entirely to art and often insulated themselves from others in the community. Her small social security income is barely enough to live on, yet she manages somehow.

But the paintings! A lifetime of work, the stunning result of the couple's sacrifice, now line the walls of a ramshackle trailer in a rural Southern town, never seeing the light of day. V currently pours all her efforts into writing to celebrities and asking them to take the collection and host a retrospective show in return for ownership of the art. It's a last attempt to find the fame and fortune they strove so hard for. I asked if having lived the life she wanted, having been able paint as a her sole line of work, and having a half-century joyful marriage to her soul mate and a lifetime of travels and creativity together wasn't something to reflect and be grateful for now, and she shook her head. "If no one takes this art and hosts a show, if no one makes a book or movie about our lives...then it was all a waste. Our sacrifices will be all for nothing."

It breaks my heart to think that it never occurred to either V or her husband that working hard and making sacrifices is no guarantee of fame. She never saw the risk, only the ideal that if one works hard enough, anything is possible. Clearly, they believed. Now the reality of saving this large body of work is weighing heavily on her small, frail shoulders. She wants desperately to leave her current lonely residence, but she can't afford to move and feels she must maintain a space for the paintings. When I talked to her about splitting up the work and donating it among collectors and foundations so that she might be freed of it's burden, she adamantly refused. The dream, this combined vision that she and her husband shared, is just too dear to her to let go of. At least right now.

Recently a friend sent me a fantastic article titled "The Death of the Artist and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur." The 20-something me would never have accepted a word of it, but in maturity I can easily see how much of it rings true. When V asked me to find an article for her about the current state of art in America, I shared this one. She stopped reading it halfway through because she didn't agree with it. She couldn't agree with something that negates every choice, every sacrifice, every intention behind every brush stroke that she and her husband made. It reminds her, too painfully perhaps, that there might have been another way. be continued

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