Cabin in the Forest, 8″x 10″, oil on canvas, 2017. Done en plain air in the Hoosier National Forest.
It seems to me, more and more, the general culture in the US (which could just as easily be read “us”) is leaning toward a mean spiritedness. Whether it’s “he said-she said” in politics, road rage while running errands or traveling, mass harassment of people just trying to have dinner at a restaurant or any of the other examples in between… it’s mean-spiritedness. Sadly even the arts, which I have always believed should carry the torch of real diversity of thought, peace, love and understanding, is not exempt. There are artists and galleries (I like to think just a few) who wish to make a political point by choosing the brutish way of depicting bloody violence against those with whom they disagree instead of creating something that causes a deeper thought process by presenting a different mindset. I myself was the victim of some mean-spiritedness by someone (perhaps several) in the arts community in the last year at a juried exhibit where I was awarded First Place. At the closing ceremonies of the exhibit someone ripped my ribbon from the wall, stole it and replaced it with someone else’s ribbon. True, that example of mean-spiritedness is not on the same level as the more outwardly vocal and bullying examples of mean-spiritedness… but it is mean-spiritedness nonetheless. Things need not be this way.
If ever there is a place for creating peace, communication and a general niceness, the arts is it. Of course I may be showing my age by promoting an idea that was big in the 1970s… I’m okay – you’re okay… but it’s true. It is possible to differ in thought, opinion and what should be without jumping feet-first and immediately into mean-spiritedness. People can have a difference of opinion and approach and maintain peace between them. It is possible, and should be encouraged, for civil discourse on differences to occur. What better place for those discussions than in the thought provoking environment the arts are supposed to be where diversity of thought is actually encouraged. The kind of place where the concept of an open mind is not just falsely mouthed while all present are actually in the same mind-set lock-step (you know what I’m talking about… I suspect you’ve been there… I know I have), but a place where peace and genuine communication occurs. That place, I firmly believe, is in the arts. Of course being a visual artist myself, I generally think of the visual arts when I make these statements but the other arts fall into this as well.
How can a community of artists start to turn the tide of mean-spiritedness? It starts with baby steps. Individual artists doing something nice is great way to get the ball rolling. Kind of like that old proverb (Chinese I think) concerning the way a single drop of water can do little, but when combined with enough other drops to make a tsunami, they create a force that cannot be ignored. So artists, be nice. What’s great about that simple notion is you probably are already involved in being nice as an artist, but aren’t as cognizant of the benefits as maybe you should be. That is quite understandable, nice people take for granted their nice deeds and don’t ponder the positive effects of being nice. My call to action for those artists is simply for them to ponder their nice deeds. Dwell on them some so your body gets full advantage of the endorphins and serotonins released as a result of your niceness. As a result… you’ll want to be nice again. No, I’m not talking voodoo here, there are articles (here’s one) on this (just not bloggers like me being verbose about it). So keep up the good work of being nice, but also let your body reward you for doing so.
Tired of being an angst-filled artist in a world full of angst-filled artists (after all, if everyone is angst-filled… no one is)? Try using your art to be nice. How? Something of which I recently learned was the concept of the Art Drop. Sure, we’ve all given our art to someone before but we usually have a face-to-face during the presentation. Art Drops are a fun way to be nice and not even know (initially) who you were being nice to. To be honest I was a little nervous on my first “Drop”. I probably over-wrapped the painting as if it were the baby Moses and I was putting it in the Nile. Nevertheless, like Moses, my baby was found and I received a nice note from the person who discovered it. Yeah, I enjoyed those endorphins and serotonins.
As an artist you’re not sure if you want to set your work free in a proverbial Nile? Not a problem. Another way to be nice via your artwork is to use it as a response to someone who has been nice to you. I suspect, even in our current mean-spirited culture there are people you know who are periodically nice to you. Let’s face it, there are, in spite of current cultural trends, people who are just super nice and have always been that way. Let your endorphins and serotonins run free by surprising that nice person with a piece of your artwork. Maybe you’ve thought to do that and just haven’t… or maybe the thought never occurred to you. Truth is, there is no time like the present so just go ahead and be nice to that person (or surprise someone else), present them with your artwork.
If each visual artist used just one or two of their creations to simply be nice, it might be like the individual drops of water… that become a nice tsunami and changes the tide of mean-spiritedness. It just makes sense to be nice.
Note: The artwork above was one of two works I surprised the cabin owners with as an unexpected gift. The owners of the cabin pictured allowed me to enjoy a get-away time at the cabin. While there I painted and framed the cabin and left it behind for them to discover.
~ John Essex II is a retired art teacher, a two-time Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellow and an Arts Council of Indianapolis Creative Renewal Arts Fellow. He is also artist/owner of EssexArt ABC, LLC through which he keeps busy creating his own fine art, creates commissioned art, does caricaturing by commission and at special events, conducts private painting parties and is contacted regularly to play the bagpipes (yes… play the bagpipes). Essex also maintains an online print-on-demand store where patrons can acquire gallery quality giclée prints of his art as well as other products that feature his work.
By the way, though the above Cabin In The Forest is not currently available as a print, but other prints by Essex can be acquired at: