This is the first in a series on my website. I was encouraged to share it here as well. They are more about sharing than attempting to instruct, an exercise in evaluating my own life and Art for the young artist will have their own life, their own art.
I fully acknowledge that the inspiration for these is Rilke’s wonderful Letters to a Young Poet which I have read several times and continue to recommend to all lost in the labyrinth of the soul. My intent is neither to copy nor replace, but to augment.
Letters to a Young Artist- April 28, 2012 It is always a pleasure to be able to correspond with a young man just starting out on the artist’s journey. I receive energy, the clarity of innocence, and the fresh eyes of youth and seek to repay those gifts with my experience and love. You must judge what advice I give that is useful; which experiences you can relate to. You write that your parents, friends, and girlfriend all greeted the news that you had been accepted at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts with concern veiled by lukewarm congratulations. You feel abandoned and in no small sense betrayed. They know how hard you worked on your portfolio; you made clear that this was an ambition dear to your heart and no idle wish of a child. You write that you see now that their previous support of your painting was for a quaint sort of hobby and that they were hoping you would fail in your application and fall in with their plans for you. Well, first let me congratulate you on your acceptance into the company of those who attended PAFA and who are privileged to be able to remember their work and growth at America’s oldest academy of the arts. To be selected honors not only your talent, but the work you have done in developing that talent because talent is a responsibility that demands development, polish, exploration. It is normal for the ones who love you to want you to follow their course through life because they love you and because they can best protect, guide, and continue to share with you if they’ve already experienced the pitfalls and pleasures of the path. They feel that they have lived a good life and that you would be happy in it, too, while they know you’ve brought them joy, and they wish for the joy of family to continue. Can you find fault in any of that? I have no doubt that your girlfriend is echoing her parents’ concern about the effect your chosen life may have on her. It is a very realistic concern! You threaten to take her away from what her parents know, and surround her with bohemian thoughts and friends whose nature it is to question everything they, her parents, take on faith. If you become successful, she can expect to be thrust into the background, and as you struggle—and the doubts of your loved ones is but the first and smallest of the battles before you—she can anticipate bearing a larger than normal onus of your financial and emotional support. She may well simply be beginning to awaken from a dream. I will remind you time and again that the supremely beautiful Goddess of Art is a jealous and imperious goddess. She does not carve the first of her commandments into stone but into your soul. You wrote that you spent sleepless nights questioning not only your dream but your worth. You were pained that you betrayed your parents and the gifts of love they showered on you as you grew. You feared that they would no longer be there when you turned from the world in pain, that you have cried from the loss of your childhood. You state that it came to the point that you could not look upon them, share a meal, watch a show without feeling guilt, and that finally you took your sketchbook and sleeping bag and went off into the woods seeking solitude, and that there, under stars bright without the pollution of city lights, in the quiet and the reassurance you are a tiny bit of the eternal, your commitment became your life. Such dark nights of the soul are a purifying pain and a true sign that the goddess has called you to her service. You have become an artist. I suppose I should congratulate you and at least affect a tear for your parents, but that is not the way of art—there is no robing ceremony, no commencement procession, neither horns nor halo. You have simply found what you were born to be and stand naked once more with wonders and dangers in every direction. There will be moments of great joy and wonderful quiet. You will often be stopped before a painting you set on the wall and be filled with a quiet pleasure that it is right. You will share with people of the heart and have no doubt of the honesty of their love. The world will continue with its conflict and suffering, but you will have no doubt that mankind is still somehow on a higher path to a mountaintop only glimpsed because you sometimes are given to paint small insights by that quiet, unerring voice. As a novice, you cannot help but think of fame and wealth, still hoping to ennoble your loved ones, but they are really just trinkets from soiled hands compared to the true harvest of art. Art is a jealous goddess who has stripped you and will bind you to her in your new guise while demanding deep devotion to her and her alone. Art demands to have first place in your mind and life and she is stingy in praise and reward. You will see many a talented friend find the price too high and watch them be feasted like the prodigal son upon their return to accepted society. You will be reminded of their every success and they will be happy to cast their time as an artist as a foolish whim or fancy. You will find that the passion of many artists will cool or deviate into cynicism or addiction and though they may retain their skills and often public acclaim, they are but parodies of themselves, producing the same painting over and over again. You will witness some with mediocre talent and greedy heart develop into a masters of business and seem to be rewarded far beyond their measure. You must concentrate on Art and be gentle in regarding the failings in others, for the two deadly banes to the artist are jealousy and pride and they are present every day. These emotions are reserved for the goddess herself so you must beware of them, as you must beware of all emotions, and keep them in their correct compartments. You must learn to see, understand, and conceive with cold and clear objectiveness while experiencing through deep feeling, for this is the gift, and the peril, in being an artist. Anger, depression, anxiety, excitement, elation, joy, contentment, sexual climax are part of the full palette of life and all must be used with none dominating or muddying the painting of your life. Do not honor elation and despise depression or you will forfeit compassion for the unfortunate, indeed, you may come to despise them as children of the devil sent to distract you from your joy. Do not attempt to lock anger away as if it were some dangerous beast, for one day it will break free and without anger your paintings may be nothing more than calendar art soon to be disgraced by your nature as the beast in its cage tears at your soul. Do not honor depression under the delusion that it represents a reflection of your higher appreciation of life for the affectation of detachment is a sort of blindness and pride. And while you must be grateful for the gift of talent and thus see the worth of your art, you must especially be on guard against pride and jealousy for they will have you paint alone while Art must be a communication. I think this is enough for any one reading. I hope you find it of use and fully expect that you will discard any thought of mine that does not ring true. I would enjoy continuing our communication if you are of the same opinion. Perhaps you would be interested in my thoughts on the Garden of Eden?