The work of two good blog friends of mine, artists Michelle Endersby and Janet Weight Reed, fascinates me. Michelle paints roses, lovely roses, different varieties of roses, every color of rose, and travels her native Australia and elsewhere to study roses, always searching for a new rose to paint. Then she paints them and then they appear on her blog and in homes and galleries for us to enjoy. My English blog friend Janet paints masterful landscapes, portraits, and bright, colorful hummingbirds, and it’s apparent to me that she studies hummingbirds—how they fly, how they flutter, how they cling to trees. She is a wonderful colorist, and her colors you don’t forget. Every rose and hummingbird they paint is different and unique. I have to realize that when they look at roses and hummingbirds, they are seeing much more than I am able to see.
Painter Julian Levi said, “It seems to me that almost every artist finds some subdivision of nature or experience more congenial to his temperament than any other. To me, it has been the sea…In painting the sea coast I have tried to acquire as much objective knowledge of the subject as I possibly could.” He studied the fishermen, fishing gear, their boats and assorted paraphernalia.
Another artist I know specializes in painting clouds and another paints skies exclusively. American impressionist Mary Cassatt came into her own when she began specializing in the personal lives of women and painting mothers with their children. That’s because the most creative minds are drawn to explore and write or paint about—or take photographs of or make movies about–specific material in one segment of their experience.
They look at something that takes their fancy and feel an excitement within them, a yearning, a hunch, a hard to define but easy to recognize intuition that there is something there in that familiar subject that’s worth pursuing further. They then work with a devotion to that specific sort of material, possibly for their entire careers. It is their most creative world, their signature, what we know them by.
It is not a random choice, but a discriminating, highly selective instinct, a particular order of things that has an outstanding appeal to that particular creative woman or man. Ernest Hemingway and before him American novelist Stephen Crane were drawn to writing about men under extreme pressure such as warfare and shipwrecks where the best way out was through having courage. Nobel Prize winner William Faulkner wrote a fictionalized version of his home town. Like me, many writers write mainly about growing up.
Speaking of creative people, T.S Eliot said, “We all have to choose whatever subject matter allows us the most powerful and most secret release; and that is a personal affair.” Literary critic Gilbert Murray wrote, “It seems to me that the writers who have the power of revelation are just those who, in some particular part of life, have seen or felt considerably more than the average run of intelligent beings.” I think the great difference intellectually between one painter or writer or one actor or director and another is simply the number of things they can see and feel in a square yard of their particular world of creation.
Creative people create because what they create and the act of creating it please them. Unless they please themselves, they will please no one. They function best when, while at work, they are thinking of nobody’s liking and standards but their own: “I alone here, on my inch of earth, paint this thing for my own sole joy, and according to my own sole mind. So I should paint it, if no other human being existed but myself…Thus I must do it, for thus I see it, and thus I like it” (John Ruskin).
They are at their best when they are immersed in their own individual creative segment of the world—Michelle with her roses, Janet with hummingbirds, Mary Cassatt with her women and their children, Hemingway and Crane with men of courage, Faulkner walking the streets of Oxford, Mississippi.
In what “subdivision of nature or experience” do you see more and feel more and are more at home and have more knowledge than other people? What subject allows you your most powerful creative release? Once you’ve defined it and have the voice to express it, then you become immersed in it and its details and you make it your own.
Then you tell us all about it and we find pleasure in it too.
© 2017 David J. Rogers
26 responses to “Devotion to a Particular Creative Subject Matter”
Wonderful insight David which is making me see the whole literary and art world in a different light. The T.S Eliot quote reminds me of your single arrow analogy. Thinking anew on my devotion to a single subject matter, I see it is a way of focusing intently, blocking out the external world and penetrating through to see what Rumi called the Unseen.
Michelle, good to hear from you, and I’m so happy you like the post. I think that’s the question creative people have to answer: “What, for me, is that subject matter which above all others facilitates authenticity in me that no other subject matter possibly can. It’s that material I’ll explore and stake my fortunes on,” as you say, focusing intently, blocking out the external world, and becoming able to penetrate deeper and deeper.
Each of your roses is beautiful, unique, and mysterious, and then the totality of all your many roses creates an overwhelming mystical experience. It’s a joy to look at your work.
Happy New Year David!
Another year is upon us, and with it the opportunity to see and experience things in a new way. The ability to open our minds and stretch a bit, to approach the world with curiosity and wonder. What might we find?
I like the way you frame the idea of devotion as being a part of what makes us feel passionate and alive in this world. It’s not a word I would have associated with passion but you’re absolutely right.
This last Christmas season I was thinking about devotion and how intrinsic it is to our very being. One of the talks I heard during advent was about the Devotion of Mary and the idea that she could have said no. That thought had never entered my mind and it shocked me. Her devotion allowed her to share her gift with all of mankind, just as an artist can chose to do.
And she could have said no… What an incredible concept.
So this new year has invited me to travel an unknown path. I will retire from the Federal government on March 17th and return to my home in Virginia. My grand babies are growing and I need to watch them blossom. It is with honor and privilege that I accept this stage of my life.
I’ve also decided to return to India in the fall. Casey was with me last time. This time I’ll be alone.
The train ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer I’ve considered to be one of the worst experiences of my travel life. No food, no water, no western bathrooms, no air conditioning, it was a lousy experience.
But you know what? I’m gonna do it again and see it through a different lens. This time I’m going to experience the way Indian nationals travel. They approach life with happiness and purpose. They are generous and kind to strangers. This I know. God help me, I’m going to not complain and I’ll enjoy it as an adventure of a lifetime. I am, however, going in an air conditioned car this time around.
Perspective is everything.
Art is life and we can appreciate the interpretations of artists from all mediums with this new found curiosity and hunger for relishing the beauty of the world.
It is about devotion.
I hope you are well, David. I miss our chats!
Happy New Year to you too, Kathy. What a great idea you have, starting 2017 with the goal in mind to see and experience things in a new way. That will keep us vital and fresh. I’ve often thought it would be kind of wonderful if periodically we could empty our minds of our current silly opinions and ridiculous attitudes and see if we could do a lot better.
Congratulations. I wish you the best in your retirement, your move to Virginia, and your being able to spend time with your grandchildren. I’m sure we will be talking again before you leave for India. I’ve often thought of taking long train rides across India and someday may. I’ve been in deprived situations but never as deprived as you were on that train, and I give you credit for challenging yourself to take the ride again.
Thanks for commenting. Are you writing much? Yes. Let’s make it a point to chat more regularly.
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Yes, it’s a new year with new purpose.
Do you remember the song from Rent called Seasons of Love?
It reads in part:
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes Five hundred twenty-five thousand Journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand Six hundred minutes How do you measure the life Of a woman or a man?”
It’s such a sweet song. It talks of living lives in sunrises and sunsets, in laughter and in shared moments to hold dear.
I’m willing now to graciously accept my place in line and be defined by spontaneous moments rather than focusing on spreadsheets of expected outcomes of evidence based practice.
Expected outcomes? That’s how I’ve learned to look at people who, in their suffering, wish some respite. The recipe sometimes fails.
It doesn’t have to be that hard. I’m willing, I hope I’m willing (being the control freak that I am) to let life happen.
It took 2016 to bring me there, and in turn, the year of losses was balanced with hope and aspirations. The reframing of “I won’t be needed any longer” to “I can now let the moments, the journeys, unfold and enjoy life with openness and wonder” was fought tooth and nail. Time to drop the rope.
I want a life of Boy Scout and Brownie badges, of cookie jars that are never empty, of gazing through the telescope at the stars and catching fireflies. I want those good things. There’s still time.
No, David, I’ve not been writing. I’ve been thinking. You know what they say about idle hands.
I envision my desk in my Virginia room, right next to my overstuffed chair and floor lamp with pink rosebuds on the shade. My bookcase will be next to my chair.
I’ll carefully choose a book from the case, perhaps Proust as you’ve suggested, and carry it to my chair.
In that chair I’ll learn of the world as I read the words that someone, maybe from very long ago, wanted to share with me. What do they want me to know? What lessons are so important that they are inscribed for eternity, waiting for discovery?
There will be days that I’ll want to share my lessons as well, and I’ll move to my desk.
I’ll imagine the best way to tell the story, and then, over tea, the words will become alive.
I can’t wait. What an adventure.
Let me know if you do go on the lecture circuit this year. I would love to hear you speak.
About your thoughts on taking that train ride through India, it’s time.
Kathy, you have lovely ambitions which I’m sure will come true–catching fireflies (one of my favorite images). The life you envision of reading great ideas and then doing your own writing is so familiar to me, so I can imagine very clearly how you will spend your days and nights.
I once gave a talk at a large company. Afterwards the president had me in his office. He said, “Let me get this straight; you study any subject you want, and you write about your own ideas. That’s what you do. No one tells you what to study or write. Is that right?” I said, “That’s exactly right.” He said, “I would give an arm and a leg to have your life.” And now you will have the same sort of life, Kathy.
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Thank you David.
I think that’s the kindest and most freeing idea anyone has ever wished for me.
May it be granted.
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Well put. I especially appreciate your statement about seeing and feeling in one’s “square yard of their particular world of creation.” If, as Chesterton wrote, we see fairyland from our kitchen porch, it’s our particular view of it.
Thank you so much for sharing.
Hello Sharon. Thank you for the Chesterton quote. When you talk of porches you have me. I love views from all kinds of them, metaphorical porches and actual porches. You make me think of summer days in childhood when I’d start the day standing on my front porch and think that much of my world was what I could see from there. What a glorious feeling I’d have. My best to you. I’m glad you like the post.
Good morning David,
Thank you for this superb post….just what I needed to begin the new year and indeed a new chapter of my life.
There is so much here that resonates with me. I particularly enjoyed John Ruskin’s quote, reminding me that creating for the sheer joy of it and coming to understand the pure essence of ones subject brings with it an intense sense of wellbeing – regardless of whether others ever see the work. I believe that at this stage an artist’s work becomes truly authentic.
I also like that a well studied subject can become the signature of the artist…..For me the hummingbird signifies the unseen magic of our world, and so speaks of my painting and philosophy of life. Capturing it’s extraordinary energy is an exciting endeavour, and as I think back it was not a random choice, but rather one of instinct.
May the magical hummingbirds be with you and your family during the coming year….bringing forth an abundance of creativity.
Janet, I sit down to work at 3:00 A.M. and 58 minutes later your comment appears and makes me feel good. I see you say you’re beginning a new chapter in your life. You’ve had so many new chapters, and here is another.
You have it exactly right–that sense of complete well-being one feels, as you say, regardless of whether anyone ever sees the work. Some writer, I forget who, said that publishing is anti-climactic; what counts most is the creating.
Yes, your lovely hummingbirds are your symbols of much more than hummingbirds. You brought them into the world like children, and you see them reaching more and more people.
I’ve been getting so many nice comments about your work. Best wishes as you begin your new phase of life.
Thank you so much, David. I am starting to get used to having more time….and it is lovely – although every now and then I think – I must go and see Mother, which I am sure will continue for a while. Yes, it is a new beginning….one I am excited about. May your day be filled with warmth and creativity… Janet:)
Thank you Janet. Your comments are always filled with kindness and warmth; it’s always a joy to hear from you.
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I love Janet’s hummingbirds.
I love them too. Janet is so accomplished.
It’s lovely to see Janet featured. She is such an inspiration. Thanks also for the introduction to Michelle’s work. Mega hugs.
Janet surely is an inspiration. I’m a great admirer of hers. I love Michelle’s work too, as is probably apparent. She has such an interesting story about what inspired her devotion to roses. You should read about it on her website.
Thanks for the hugs. Same to you.
Love this post, thank you for your advice and for introducing us to such talented artists.
I was using a workbook last week that asks you to look at the work you’ve done over the last year and pull out any reoccurring themes you can find. Without realising it, I had been returning again and again to very visceral themes of death and decay.
I’m not sure if this is my segment of nature, but I’ll continue to dig my creative fingers into it and see what I turn up.
Sophie, isn’t that an interesting hunt to be on–those revealing recurring themes? Even your imagery can tell you a lot. Seems to me that you’ve found something significant.
Thank you for the comment and the compliment. I’m glad you liked the post.
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As always I like your post David.
The rose from Michelle is so pretty.
When I saw it,I imagined that nice smelling.
I like also the rose is painted on a round canvas.
The hummingbird from Janet is magic.
Their colors,and I can hear how it flutters.
I have no doubt “creativity ” is a gift from God.
Happy new year 2017.
Hi Marilucas. I think creativity is a gift, but that gift has to be nurtured with learning and hard work. I certainly agree that Michelle’s and Janet’s work is wonderful. I’m happy I could introduce them to you. Thanks for your comment.
Hi David, Thank you for following me on Twitter so I could find out about you and your insightful and unique blog. This article is very inspirational. I love the references and choice of artwork. Michelle Endersby is one of my favorite artists and has won awards in shows I’ve curated. It’s wonderful to see her featured here. I look forward to reading more of posts. Best wishes, Renee
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Renee, I’m happy to be following your blog now and I’m impressed with your career and very interested in the work you’re doing in the field of the healing power of art. I will make it a point to read your posts. I wrote a blog about writers’ moods. You probably already know what I said. I wrote:
“And how does the act of writing affect your emotions? Does it elevate your mood or depress you–relax you or excite you; make you feel up or down? The answer is that regardless of the type of writing you’re doing on whatever topic, the act of writing almost always improves your mood.
“In one study of writers, writing improved the mood of every participant, without exception. Positive emotions were intensified and negative emotions blunted, regardless of the type of writing task. You may start your work in anger, for example, or feeling depressed or afraid, and after finishing an hour’s work most of the time you’ll feel a thousand times happier, more satisfied, more delighted, more joyful, and also calmer, less nervous, more relaxed and enthusiastic, serene, peaceful… The writers who wrote about a trauma not surprisingly felt worse than the controls. But the negative mood quickly wore off.”
I’m so pleased you looked at my blog and liked my work. All the reward a creative needs is someone saying “Good job.” I notice that you lectured at our Art Institute of Chicago—the “Toot”– where I’ve spent happy hours.
I found my way to Michelle Endersby’s blog a few years ago and we have developed quite a blog friendship. I adore her work, and am moved by the story of how she survived a brush with death and became a rose painter. I enjoy her brilliance. She’s such a really fine writer too.
Best wishes to you. I’m looking forward to a long friendship.
P.S. I think you would enjoy Janet Weight Reed’s work too.
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Thank you David. I agree with you 100%. Writing is extremely cathartic and used that when I did volunteer work in a psychiatric hospital. Now, as a career consultant and mentor for artists, I encourage artists to keep a journal and write about their career dreams. I also believe that for artists, the process of writing their Artist’s Statement is not only a marketing tool, it serves to clarity their creative vision and unique perspective as a creative individual. We are in sync and I look forward to reading your future posts.
Yes, Renee. We are in sync, and I look forward to reading your posts as well.
I found it very interesting to see what kind of topics inspired people as I am naturally curious to learn.With my own writing I have found I find out afterwards what it was that interested me… often images of lowness,worms,snails,earth,humus.I didn’t know before I began writing what would happen.I expect if varies for everyone.I always enjoy reading one of your posts and I still have a lot to read.Hope you are having a good weekend.Katherine