Can you be an artist and live a normal life?

Since starting this blog, a day seldom passes that I don’t find more old artists, exalted, working, growing. Today our local newspaper, Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, featured a story about Robert Ellison, a sculptor of big steel pieces — the kind that weigh 30 tons and stand 30 feet high. I’m not familiar with his work but since there’s quite a bit around here (the San Francisco North Bay), I plan to go take a look. Ellison. who’s only 63, has been working on these enormous monuments most of his life. He was diagnosed with Lou Gherig’s disease four years ago and started using a motorized wheelchair eighteen months ago, but catch what he has to say about his art:

I’m just at the threshold of the peak of my career. The ideas are clearer and cleaner and cleverer than they’ve ever been.

Truly creative people are possessed, I think. Recently, as I browsed around the Internet, I came across John H. Lienhard, a writer of light and elegant prose who’s interested in creativity. Because he’s a professor in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Houston, his examples of creators run to inventors and scientists, many of whom crack up after making astounding discoveries. Writes Lienhard,

Without creativity we are nothing. But, when we step off onto those unexpected side roads that intersect the main arteries of our thinking, we are not welcome. Change is a threat to the world around us….. The creative daemon within us poses a threat that most people want to see sealed off.

Lienhard quotes Coleridge:

I would build a dome in air,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair,
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.


I think of the many outsider artists who have spent many years of their lives in mental institutions: e.g. Martin Ramirez and Adolf Wolffi. The art of many of them has been in response to voices that only they can hear and visions that only they can see. The most well-known example is Howard Finster, the Baptist preacher and artist from Summerville, Georgia, who was inspired by his visions and God’s command to spread the gospel through his several acre Paradise Garden and over 46,000 pieces of art.

Photo by benchilada. Flickr. Reverend Howard Finster folk art at the Krannert Art Museum and Kinkead Pavilion (Set)

So even though I don’t believe with the romantics, past and present, that most or even many artists are mentally and emotionally disturbed, I must agree with Lienhard that they’re not normal. Which brings me round to the subject of my last post. Does it make sense to argue that old people will thrive if they become creative when, as Lienhard declares to a worried would-be inventor,

You cannot be inventive and live a normal life.” Oh, I knew you could live a normal life, at least in the outward markers of normalcy. But at some point you have to go where others have not gone.

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2 thoughts on “Can you be an artist and live a normal life?

  1. Having spent many years dabbling in a lot of different art forms, I think that the short answer to your title question is “no”. A slightly longer answer would be “creative people are always perceived as ‘different’, even from childhood, and are methodically forced into what is considered to be a ‘normal’ mould. This occurs systematically at school, and usually at home as well. Obviously, the child suffers from it. Instead of encouraging and helping to develop his creative originality, adults try to make him ‘conform’. This sows the seeds of mental disturbances which can subsequently get out of hand. On top of that, artists are very sensitive people (at least, the good ones are) and feel this ‘difference’, and the disappointment which it causes to the adults around them, very strongly. Once we stop seeing the Arts as a hobby activity, and start giving them the place they deserve at the top of the spiritual tree, artists will be treated better, will therefore suffer less, and will feel accepted for their individual selves. What is normal for one person is not normal for someone else. We need to start accepting others the way that they are, instead of trying to make them into our own idea of normalcy. ” Voila!

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