Expecting to fly

Sunflowers (2021 mixed media and collage 30 cms x 20 cms)

Let’s listen to two artists who coincidentally produce work for The New Yorker. First, Bruce McCall:

“Life in general has treated me better than I deserved. As a kid from nowhere, with no education, no guidance, no money, no formal training, I should have had no dreams, let alone an expectation to fulfil them. But to my continued astonishment, I’ve maintained a nearly four-decades-long romance with The New Yorker and accomplished the only dream I knew I had: to be an artist…Growing up poor and unworldly doesn’t sentence you to a mediocre, artless life (if it did, we wouldn’t have the Beatles) – but it certainly doesn’t help. I don’t think being coddled by familial love and money would have necessarily made me a ‘better’ artist, but it might have helped me see that I was one a few decades earlier. If you ignore the value of your calling out of fear…your greatest fears will likely come true: you will abandon your true calling.” (from How Did I Get Here: A Memoir, Blue Rider Press 2020)

And now, cartoonist Harry Bliss:

“My parents never steered me in any direction in terms of a career path. I never thought about money when it came to choose the path. At 13 I knew I wanted to be an artist and that was that. I never worried about whether I could earn a living, I only knew that if I worked at it it would happen and in the meantime I was perfectly fine working in restaurants to pay the rent. There were a few times though, when my well-intentioned mother…thought it would be a good idea for me to do caricature portraits on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, $10 per portrait. ‘At the end of the day you could be making a lot of money’ she advised. I didn’t take her advice.” (extracted from a post on Instagram @blisscartoons July 2021 – do seek this out: the post takes a sudden turn at this point into a related story that is both astonishing and deeply moving)

These quotes seem to occupy two somewhat opposing viewpoints, even though both McCall and Bliss were convinced from an early age that they would be artists. The former took a series of jobs in advertising and the media which provided a good living for him and his family, until one day after a particularly unrewarding stint as a writer on Saturday Night Live he decided to take the plunge into being a full-time artist. Bliss, on the other hand, was going to be an artist whatever, working menial jobs until he could make it work financially.

I can sympathise with McCall. Like him, I wanted the trappings of material success: a nice place to live, books, foreign travel, bottles of wine, pictures on the wall – and although my chosen career of book publishing was never going to make me rich, I’ve been comfortable enough all these years. Unlike Bliss, I was never going to be happy in a bedsit in the Manchester suburb where I grew up, stacking supermarket shelves, drawing and painting at night and over the weekends until my genius was recognised.

More than poverty though, I was fearful of having this artistic calling devalued. I used to work, at the beginning of my career in a London bookshop, with an inspiring man whose first love was jazz. He was a bass player who played gigs and recorded a couple of albums with a quartet, but he never wanted it to be his job. Some years later, in the back of a taxicab in San Francisco, the driver told me that he too was a jazz bassist but he loved the instrument so much he wasn’t, as he put it, “going to be told by some asshole pianist what to play” so instead he took up the saxophone and that’s the instrument he played in bands. Finally, a few years ago I did a short course in oil painting where I met a woman whose day job was an illustrator. “My dream job,” I told her. “Not if all you do is draw people playing tennis and football for sportswear companies’ annual reports,” she replied. Not Maurice Sendak then.

I was never certain that I would be good enough for art to make me a living, even a modest one. As an illustrator you need a Gruffalo or a Very Hungry Caterpillar; as a fine artist you need to catch the eye of one of those high profile gallerists who’ll sell your shark in formaldehyde or your vacuum cleaner in a vitrine to hedge fund managers. I can’t see my acrylics of quinces hanging in the Marlborough, can you?

Of course, you can make a decent living following your artistic calling without having to pickle sea creatures. My partner gave up a career in nursing to become a textile designer and made a good living from it. Turning then to fine art and printmaking, she regularly sells her inspiring and beautiful work via her website and galleries. It makes me think of baby birds discovering why they have wings: they stand on the edge of their nests and launch themselves into the void, expecting to fly. How do they know their untried wings will carry them aloft and not send them crashing to the ground?

I can’t complain though. Now I have the time and opportunity not only to create, but to play, to experiment, as with the drawing of sunflowers above. This is a new departure for me: using collage and monoprinting to create imprecise areas of tone – no pencil underdrawing – using a piece of twig rather than a nib or a stylus to create living, breathing lines.

Learning to fly!

PS This painting and many others are available to buy on my website at michaelrichardsart.com.

16 thoughts on “Expecting to fly

  1. Thank you for your interesting and inspiring posts — I always enjoy them, for art and for life. It’s funny you mention, today, new birds’ trust in their wings when they fledge, as 3 bluebird hatchlings emerged from their shells just this morning in our bluebird box out back. I’ve seen numerous fledglings take their first flight from there the past few years. Your likening that huge trust and courage to the chances we humans need to take is true, not only in first leaps, but sometimes every day. Thanks again, and best wishes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Nancy, I’m pleased these posts strike a chord. And how wonderful to watch bluebirds fledge in your own back yard.

      In another coincidence, Expecting to Fly was the title of a song written by Neil Young when he was a member of the band, Buffalo Springfield. Bluebird is a song by Stephen Stills from the same album!

      Liked by 1 person

      • How I appreciate these flashes from the past, which often apply universally, and now, whenever “now” may be. Thank you for the Neil Young / Buffalo Springfield reminders. It has been so long that I just now listened to “Expecting to Fly” on YouTube because that one hadn’t stuck with me for some reason. It’s wonderful! Much food for thought on this particular day, and I thank you. It’s no wonder you titled your post as you did.

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  2. Inspiring to hear all these stories. Each of us has their own path. I like your drawn and painted collage, and the sense of freedom I feel in your words.

    I liked designing and would still be doing it if it hadn’t stopped liking me back. I stopped trying to sell my art when I realized no one wanted to buy it. But I will keep doing it because I must. (K)

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  3. Nothing sleeping about your beauty! It’s bold, fresh and so appealing. Although I do see the petals begin to droop and drowse. Wondering where you found “The Little Gems of English Poetry” And Samuel Rogers to boot!
    The Sleeping Beauty

    Sleep on, and dream of heaven awhile
    Tho’ shut so close thy laughing eyes,
    Thy rosy lips still wear a smile
    And move, and breathe delicious sighs! etc.

    And your ruminations on art and career and money and success – food for thought. Thank-you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks very much, Josie. The copy of Little Gems was one of a small pile of old poetry books given to me by a friend. As it was falling apart but the paper was such a wonderful, mellow colour, I decided to use it for collage. This page was supposed to be something else but it seemed to lend itself to this composition in the end.

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  4. The varied paths people take toward being an artist are always interesting to hear about. For most of my working life, I couldn’t find jobs that put my artistic abilities in the forefront but I never stopped looking, thinking about what I saw, and expressing myself aesthetically, whether it was in a garden, on paper, or even on my person. Retirement has been a huge change and I’m grateful for it. I do think the fine art education and all those years paying attention formed a good foundation. I like your drawing/monoprint/collage – there’s a lot to see there. Glad you’re experimenting!

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  5. It is so interesting to hear how people find their dreams, some early on and some later. I have loved my many careers and now I love retirement where I can write poetry and not have to make a living from it. Very interesting post once again, Michael.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks as always, LuAnne, for your thoughtful comment. You’re right, it’s great to retain that purity of intent – like the bass playing taxi driver – rather than have to churn out drawings of sportspeople for an annual report. Celebrate what is, that’s my motto now. M x

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