Response to the Article "The Downside of Isolation"

Response to the Article "The Downside of Isolation" from Robert Genn’s Newsletter: “The Painter’s Keys”

by Jeanean Songco Martin

Hello Robert, This is an interesting and thought provoking article. It touches on an idea that I have thought about often. Is it more beneficial for the artist to work in solitude? Does socialization actually hinder the creative spirit or help it? I believe that we create our best work in solitude but without the companionship of other painters and people in general, we lose an enriching opportunity to bounce ideas around, appreciate each other’s work, and also get feedback which is very important. The “shared human experience” is something that reaches down into our psyche. It is a helpful feeling, as you say, that we are all in this together.

The common experience of painting and the challenges shared are similar. We are not totally unique in what we do. The uniqueness in our art is what identifies and separates us from others. One of my old professors used to say to our class just before we picked up the brush. "Remember you are standing in the same spot before a blank canvas as Leonardo, Rembrandt and Velasquez". That thought of identifying with greatness would always stay with me, that this "act of painting" is repeated over and over again in a darkened cave by a hunter, etched in stone on a mountain cliff, scribbled in crayon in a child's classroom, and foolishly by me, standing in front of God's creation trying to replicate that beauty in paint and finally in my lone studio in front of my own easel. It is a unique moment that combines our craft, skills and souls to say what is in our heart.

I have the words from a Joni Mitchell song from her album Blue on my easel. “I am a lonely painter. I live in a box of paints”. We all live in our own little world but we are not in a vacuum and if we embrace the aura of being “in the experience” of life at its fullest , we can move in and out of that expansiveness into the womb of solitary creative experience. It is not unlike a dance, a lovely waltz and who would want to waltz all alone, I ask?

Upon returning from my workshops I always create a “keepsake” video as a gift for my workshop participants. It is not for sale or public use. It is a visual "thank you card", a collection of images and music only for their enjoyment. The video I am working on now is from my workshop in New Mexico last September. I like to do this as a gift for the students but also for myself to reflect on the experience and revisit some of the beautiful places through the images. As a musician I feel it is important to add music to the visual experience. Places I have seen many times before take on new meaning with each new person that I share that experience with. My goal is to give back a moment in time, a recollection of the“shared experience”, that can never be had in isolation.

On this trip our group had the privilege of visiting Sherrie McGraw and David Leffel’s beautiful home and studio in Taos. It was an experience I will never forget. In my research for the keepsake video I came across a statement written by David Leffel who so eloquently expresses his thoughts on painting and life. I also feel our life and our work are one and cannot be separated.



“When I first started painting I just thought it was something I’d like to do — and if I could make some money at it, then I didn’t have to get a job! As I went further into it, I needed confirmation that the things I was discovering in paint were true. I found that if it was true in painting, it was also true in life. Painting is like an interlocking set of relationships — color, edges, values, thick and thin, etc. Life is the same. Everything is interrelated. All of life is like one big, interlocking relationship. Everything you do has a consequence to everything else.” David A. Leffel.



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Reflection on a leaf - Homage to the Wyeths

I can not believe that I have never been to The Brandywine River Museum before.  What a wonderful and beautiful place and such an appropriate setting for  the Wyeth Family Collection.    I have always adored the colorful and richly painted works of N. C. Wyeth.  I was amazed to see the original paintings for Treasure Island that were quite large and magnificently painted.  Yes, N.C. was an illustrator during the Golden Age of Illustration but these paintings are not bland interpretations.  They are richly painted works of art.   N.C.'s  loaded brush and bravura mark harkens back to the Venetians.  Surely he must have admired Titian.  


I was also pleasantly surprised to behold Andrew Wyeth's works which seemed so much more moving in person than in the myriad of reproductions that I have seen in books and gracing the livingroom walls of countless homes.  The popularity of some of Andrew Wyeth's work can not be denied and has almost been a deterrent for me.  But to stand in front of one of his quiet yet powerful egg tempera paintings makes one appreciate the masterful technique and quiet aspect of his persona and the unique world up there in Brandywine Country.  


An added bonus was to have as our personal guide Victoria Wyeth, grandaughter of Andrew.  Her personal recollections and  enthusiastic delivery  made the tour especially enjoyable.  She talked about how her grandfather loved taking walks through the countryside and especially enjoyed the leaves and the sound they made as he walked.  When I saw this leaf on the museum grounds by the river, I was beckoned to paint it "a la Wyeth" .  

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A very gifted musician once told me "If it sounds good it must be right"  There was no music theory cited to support this statement it was based purely on the "sound" and "feel" of the music.  I am a painter/musician. I wear different hats for different teaching situations but it is all related.   Art and music go hand in hand and complement each other. So I see no conflict in my dual pursuits. I do, however, have to moniter my time. I have been putting together a class that I will be teaching hammered dulcimer on.   The class involves teaching mostly Appalacian fiddle tunes using Old-time rhythms and patterns that reflect the music. It has a specific feel and sound. There are many examples and references but you will not find them in the sheet music. You have to “listen” and “feel” in order to understand this genre of music. If you try to put the music in a box it will try to climb out.   Folk music is a living breathing entity and changes with every turn and every person who plays it. There is no right or wrong. 

Recently, I have been thinking about the idea of knowledge and training vs. intuition and natural ability.   Raw talent is something we all have. I truly believe that.   Anyone can play music, draw or make a painting, create something beautiful. We all have an innate sense of beauty. The job of the teacher is to “bring out” the individual and not to suppress their unique qualities. However, teaching art or music must have some structure or it is very intangible and can not be communicated. Having said that, how much structure should one have?

I have mentioned before that I feel extremely grateful to have attended the Maryland Institute College of Art where the first two years were grounded in the foundation courses including basic drawing and painting, anatomy, etc. Some of the information was already available to me through observation, my own natural ability (which you should not be ashamed to acknowledge) and extreme curiosity which should always be high on your list of goals. But to actually have an instructor to guide you in the rudiments of the “craft” of painting is invaluable. The time honored tradition of master and apprentice is one that should be appreciated. 

Formal art or music training is definitely a plus. I do not, however, feel it is a requirement. There are many painters and musicians who have received little or no formal training and they are perfectly competent and genius in their own right.   The real benefit of having an art or music education is obvious but when you stand before the easel in the footsteps of so many other great artist you must forget all of the knowledge and allow your feelings to take over only then will you create a work of art that encompasses the full spectrum of Hand, Heart and Mind.


Jeanean Songco Martin

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