A Freeze on Freebies

29 02 2012

I’m really not a negative or stingy person, but there is one very popular fund-raising trend that evokes some violently negative and Scrooge-like reactions in me.   That is when well-meaning people and organizations ask me to donate a painting to be auctioned off for their community event or charity.  It is when businesses invite me to decorate the walls of their offices or cafés with my paintings, free of charge, of course.  In both cases, I am supposed to be grateful for the “exposure” it gives my work.  Frankly, I am furious.  There is, however, something other than art that I would like to expose in this blog.  It’s just a few alarming facts.


“The bottom line for artists is dismal, with the typical artist losing $556 in 2007 on their practice. (Other income sources bring median total earnings to $20,000 – not starving, but certainly not affluent.)”  (Waging Culture:  the social-economic status of Canadian visual artists. The Art Gallery of York University)

The same study found that Canadian artists are “overwhelmingly more likely to be highly educated with an average of more than six years post-secondary education., but that only 43.6% of visual artists made any money at all from their studio practice.”  The economic returns due to higher education are much lower for artists than for other Canadian workers.

More than 30% of artists have no supplementary health benefits and no retirement funds whatsoever.  Another approximate third has only self-financed benefits and retirement funds.

A Statistical Profile of Artists in Canada Based on the 2006 census confirms that the average earnings of artists are very low.  “A typical artist in Canada earns less than half the typical earnings of all Canadian workers”

They also found that there are more female than male artists, yet women artists earn much less than men.

Considering these stats, are artists really the kind of people charities and businesses should be targeting over and over again for freebies?  It sounds more like Canadian artists are in need of a little support and charity themselves.

You may counter the argument by saying that artists choose this profession.  (That, too, is debatable.)   Even so, they should be paid fairly for their work.  I wish Canadians would acknowledge the value, contribution, indeed, the necessity of arts and culture, the health of which reflects the health of a nation and its people.  If Canadians purchase art from their local artists, they are doing far more than just acquiring an item. They are helping their own, local artists to live with dignity and strengthening their own economy.  Buying art shows that the artists’ work is valued, their chosen profession respected, and their contribution to society recognized and honoured.

Life would be pretty dull and limited without our Canadian artistic legacy.  Was it not The Group of Seven who, by their paintings, changed Canadians’  and, eventually, the world’s perception of our wilderness?  Did not Emily Carr’s art open our eyes to the rich cultural and artistic magnificence of the West Coast Natives? Would PEI have such a strong tourism without L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables?  We need to ask ourselves these questions.  Just maybe arts and culture might be our most valuable asset, and most important export.  After all, it employs more people in Canada than the car manufacturing industry does.

It is the artists who create, preserve and rejuvenate culture. Artists define who we are and point to where we are going and from where we have come.  They replenish our souls, homes and communities with beauty and a unique vision.  Their art beckons us to slow down, to look and listen, and feel alive.   Our Canadian artists are more necessary than ever today, in an age of globalization, speed and the sameness of culture through electronics. But they cannot live on nothing.  The arts are fragile, and always have been, necessitating extra nurturing and protection, not exploitation.

The best way to protect our culture is to support and pay our artists a fair price. The old saying, “You get what you pay for” applies to art, too. If you pay nothing, you’ll soon have no Canadian culture.  So, if you are thinking of targeting artists for freebies, stop.  Stick your hands back in your pocket, and reverse the flow. Our Canadian cultural life depends on it.


“Sir, I am a painter, not a stainer.”

22 02 2012

I recently read in Chittock’s book, entitled Portrait Painting, that someone  commented to Rembrant that his paint strokes were so thick that the portrait he had painted could be picked up by its nose.  Rembrandt replied, “Sir, I am a painter, not a stainer!”

A painting can have wonderful colour and composition,  but it is the brush strokes that give a painting extra verve and dash and flourish,  like a person’s signature.

If you are a painter, apply the paint with passion.  Slap it on and  smear it around until it dances and swirls and dips and dives all around the canvas.  Why not put on Strauss and waltz exuberantly with your brush?  Then you will see your own, authentic signature encoded  in every brush stroke you make, regardless of the colour you use.  None of these fearful, tight, stiff movements.    Take new risks.  There’s always another canvas if this one doesn’t work out.

When I get too tight, and start to stain rather than paint,  I take forever to paint my subject. Then, since I have spent so much time on it, I become even tighter because I am afraid that I will ruin it.  By that time, I have most definitely ruined it and picked away all the freshness and spontaneity of my signature strokes.  I have also lied about who I am, if, as an enthusiastic optimist with a big, expansive outlook on life, I have painted with stingy, flat staining strokes.  True art rarely lies.

Go ahead, pick up those paintings by the nose or by the scruff of the neck, if you wish.  Once you are nose to nose with it, don’t forget to notice and examine the beauty of brush strokes, themselves.  They, too, carry a message.

Just Get Painting

15 02 2012

 I’ve always loved traveling.  I did a lot of it in my teens, but not so much in my adulthood.  The four kids, homeschooling, music lessons, a house and a business, a big garden and chickens forced my husband and me to run a pretty lean ship and nothing was left for exotic trips.

But there was always a way in which I could travel – in front of my easel.    Art is the only way to run away without leaving home, American dancer, Twyla Tharp, wrote. While I never seriously wanted to run away from home, I certainly enjoyed being transported out of my daily routines by the simple beauty of colour, shape, and line whenever I slipped out to the boathouse to paint in the early morning before the babies started wailing.  I always returned renewed, as if I been somewhere special and far away.


I guess that’s how I became a painter.  Sure, I had always managed to squeeze in a few studio art courses at university while studying language and literature, and the odd week-long art course when the kids were tiny.  A relative had to be cajoled to move in and run my household in my absence. That wasn’t very easy or very often.  So, I’d just paint.  I’d pore over art books and art magazines, then paint some more.

I came to learn a very valuable lesson.  And that is, if you want to be an artist, you just start being one.  Just get painting every day, even if you don’t have all the credentials.  You find out that you had the best teacher right with you all along. That’s you, yourself!  The artist within just needs a lot of practice at seeing and doing to be coaxed out.

Art books and magazines are a pretty good second best.  If you live far away from night courses and art galleries, as I do, it’s big colourful reproductions that substitute very effectively.  I tore out my favourites and placed them in a box.  I pored over those scraps, asking myself just what it was that drew me to this or that painting. Then I’d try out the technique myself.   To this day, when I need inspiration or have a painting problem, I rustle through my box of cutouts. Among the many excellent painters who preceded me, one always holds the solution in his or her paintings and tells me what I need to change in my painting.

I am so grateful to my dear friend, Janette Malloy from Ohio, who, every once in awhile, boxed up old American Art magazines and sent them to me.  Pure gold could not have excited me more.  Years ago, I sat beside her at a Charles Reid workshop in Hilton Head, SC.  Already an accomplished painter and a member of the Pastel Society of American, and thirty years my senior, this talented artist became a mentor who introduced me to pastels, impressionism and wild colour.  Teachers like Janette Malloy cannot be planned.  They drop unexpectedly like angels into your life, and ignite a creative spark that you never knew you had.  All you can do is pray and wait expectantly for a Janette to drop into your life, just at the right time, and guide you along your artistic path.  There is no greater gift.  Sadly, Janette Malloy died only a few months ago.  I am very grateful for the time and the conversations I had with her.

Painting itself is a conversation, with the living and the dead, about a journey that we illustrate through colour and shape.  It might not take you to Spain or Esfahan, but it does, strangely enough, get you into infinity.