Back when I first struggled with learning to paint, these letters exchanged with a dear friend gave us both a shared feeling of camaraderie and purpose. I never realized when these letters were new how much they lifted my spirits. Of course I enjoyed them immensely. But reading them now has an effect that is really hard to describe. Though sadly my friend and I have lost touch over the years, the letters take on a deeper and new meaning.
Over time, you can begin to question the worth of what you do. Artists really struggle with and worry when they are earnest and idealistic — as we were. Over the years — even though you have various triumphs (I’ve come a long way with my painting from those early days) — it’s still tough not to doubt, especially when the current of the “art world” rushes past you in a different direction.
Reading these old letters from my friend reminds me of the ways we held ourselves to high standards — to how we were quite firm in our decision to do painting the way we wanted — as realists (of a sort) when realism wasn’t at all trendy. (Goodness, it’s so less trendy now!)
I admire our spirits of determination back then. We were so young. But we had guts. We did so much work from life. We wanted to have the immediacy of the subject before us. We looked at things really deeply. We wanted to understand nature and life.
I am also struck by our qualms. My friend particularly asked again and again: is this the right way to be an artist? Gosh, I wish we got some of the well deserved credit for earnestness that truly characterized our seriousness of purpose.
How many others ask themselves in spells of recurrent soul-searching — does what I do matter? Do congressmen in their endless finger pointing ask this? Do all those companies that put you on hold when you call them ask this? Do bureaucrats who put you through endless mazes ever ask themselves? Artists, real artists, don’t get near enough credit for their very laudable sense of purpose and their high standards.
Does what I do matter?
And so often, in the cases where the answer is resolutely “yes” — yes, what you did really did matter — in those cases, so often the answer doesn’t even come until decades, perhaps even centuries later!
Now, that’s dedication!
[This post has been adapted from an August 2007 essay called “Nostalgia” at Art Writing Bold Drawing. Top of the post: a letter from a high school girl’s French pen pal from 1939.]