The fire inside

A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.

“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.

“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.

“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.

I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.

I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.

Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.

You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.

Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.

I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King called The Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.

So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.

Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.

37 thoughts on “The fire inside

  1. I think you do yourself an injustice. Sometimes you just show up, but that doesn’t mean you’re not an artist. I always tell people what my best drawing teacher said…you do 100 drawings and throw 99 away.
    I have a book by Ross King on Monet and the water lilies that I’m meaning to read next. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Art makes you think and you have me thinking. Thanks for this, Michael. Did you sent this to my dad? Or may I?


    Liked by 1 person

  3. So good to see you back, Michael.
    What makes an artist? The freedom of wanting to create instead of having to create, of course. Whether you do 10 paintings a day, 10 a year or 10 in 10 years, if you have the desire you’re an artist at heart.

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  4. The painting practically leaps off the screen with energy, which is funny when you think that the tulips have lost their energy. But really, they haven’t, it just changed. The post is beautifully written and absolutely it makes sense to me. 🙂

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  5. So delighted to see your post! You have been quite an inspiration to me over the years, Michael. I love this painting; it does look energetic like someone else said. I have taken you paintings as a jumping off point several times. Remember the one of a man looking out of a train window, the inside of the train done in ink and outside the window you used watercolor? I did something similar with my cat (in acrylics) is staring out of a window, the outside being abstract watercolor, and the wallpaper was done in a zen tangle pattern in ink. It’s my husband’s favorite painting I have done and he framed it and hung it in our foyer. I would have never done that without your inspiration. I was telling an artist friend about you just the other day and referred to you as an artist. I certainly consider you an artist, and not just with painting but also as a writer. So good to have you back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, LuAnne, that’s so kind of you – I don’t know what to say. I’m pleased if once or twice I’ve been able to help you realise things you wanted to do. I see a lot of images on Instagram where I think, that’ll come in useful some day. It’s a chain of inspiration, isn’t it? I love your words and pictures too, and I’ve sneaked back over the past six months to see what you were doing. It’s a two way thing. Thank you again, LuAnne, you’ve certainly made my day – if not my month!

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  6. Well and must say, yes I must, that the way you write touches me, gives me things to think about. The clarity of your style, the way you describe what you see, think, feel reaches me right away and I continue reading. And this in a time where I practically stopped reading as there was too much going on in the world and in my little universe. So thank you Michael and I will catch up slowly but steadily.

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