The artist John Olsen, aged 89, an icon of the Australian art world was recently quoted as saying that ‘Artists are born, they can’t be trained.’ The comment sparked fierce debate on the ArtsHub Facebook page and it is a good one to ponder. It gets to the heart of where the creative life comes from. Is it nurture or nature that makes someone an artist? It is an interesting question for a teacher to explore.
This got me thinking about the artists I know, the lives of artists I have read about, the hundreds of students I have taught over the past 16 years, and about my own process of becoming an artist. When I think back over all those students I can clearly remember the ones that had the soul of an artist. One of my own teachers says she saw it in me at the age of 10.
Almost every young child has a freedom and exploration in their early artistic expression. Unless children have an inbuilt dislike of the sensory aspects of painting, most will playfully make marks without fear or judgement. Every young child also possesses the qualities of curiosity and wonder also possessed by adult artists. Only a rare few children maintain their love of art making into adulthood. Even fewer possess the determination to overcome self doubt and peer pressure to keep making art. To continue to develop as artists and to become become professionals, we must have an inner drive and to love it enough to place it at the centre of our lives.
The one trait that all professional or serious artists possess is devotion. Devotion to making art, to developing skill and to striving to expressing their highest vision. That cannot be taught, it must come from within. Artists must posses devotion and determination to make art in spite of criticism, struggles, and sometimes disinterest from others. My friend Helen Martineau discusses this her book “Prodigal Daughters’:
‘The romantic idea of the artist is more often than not a reality – of an individual driven to spend every waking moment striving to bring forth the vision, willing if necessary to forego fashion and comfort, a regular income and the dreams of contemporary normality; a smart car or two, a home of their own, a holiday house by the beach, a financially secure retirement.’
John Olsen himself overcame early obstacles on the path to becoming a successful and celebrated artist. He defied the wishes of his family to follow his desire to become an artist. Despite the genteel life he has created for himself today, he is from an ordinary background. Growing up during the Depression and the Second World War in Newcastle and Sydney, his parents both worked in the clothing industry. During his time at art school Olsen supported himself by working as a cleaner at night and in the early morning. He also worked as a freelance cartoonist to earn a living. It is easy to judge someone on their present success without understanding the hardships it has taken over a lifetime to arrive at that success.
Art is a calling and true artists must make art or their life is not fulfilling or meaningful. Making art is as necessary as breathing for the inner life of the artist. I have had times in my life when art was not at the centre or even a small part of my everyday activities. Those years were grey and empty times and depression was one of the symptoms of that emptiness.
I also know many people who did not have access to an art education, their creativity expresses itself in many different ways, sometimes through gardening, dressing well, cooking, decorating or appreciating the art of others. Often the desire for the artistic life lies dormant for many years, finally transforming from a whisper to a roar, commonly at midlife. In these people the artist can be brought forth and given a visual language with which to speak after being silent for years.
Everyone is born with creativity and curiosity, which in some people develops into artistic talent. A person must use and develop that talent in order to become an artist. And it is never too late to learn. It takes bravery, curiosity and devotion. Unlike drawing and painting, those qualities are not easily taught, they must come from within. That is how I interpret Olsen’s statement. Desire, devotion, determination and a love of art are inborn. Someone may be trained in technical art skills and never use them. It is the dedicated use and further development of those skills that defines an individual as an artist. Art skills can be learned at any age, the desire to make art is innate, and that desire is the key to becoming an artist.
Hart, D (2000) John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney
Martineau, H (2015) Prodigal Daughters: A new vision of spirituality and the inner histories of the arts. Xlibris