This past weekend I attended a memorial service for someone who was a dear friend of mine for 26 years. Dianne was a smart, honest, caring, humorous person who spent four long years dealing with cancer, and for most of that time, she knew it was most likely a terminal disease. Being aware of her impending death led her deep into contemplation about her own life, what she was happy about and what was important for her to do while she still had time. Although contending with the disease took a lot out of her, she managed to determine certain things that she wanted to accomplish, to keep these goals in sight, and to accomplish quite a few of them. Of greatest importance was spending time with her family, but she also organized her finances and papers, revisited places she loved and people from her past and sought out ways to deepen her spirituality. And while the disease forced her into early retirement from her career in social work, she continued to offer insights and professional knowledge to her colleagues and community through articles and videos that she made about end of life issues.
During the months and years in which she prepared for her death, I marveled at how calmly and purposefully Dianne pursued what was important to her, in spite of pain and fatigue. Watching her go through all of this made me wonder how I would handle a terminal diagnosis. What would be my focus if death were not a vague event of the future, but hovering in the near future? Like Dianne, I think I would be mainly concerned with family and friends and spiritual issues. And also like her, I would think about my career, and what I’ve done and what I’d still like to do, and I would feel some obligation to sort out the mess in my studio , to designate how my family should deal with my inventory. But some larger issues related to my work and art career have also come to mind as a result of Dianne’s illness and death. I’d like to share these because they seem worth contemplating now, while there is still (I hope) much life to live, and because they may resonate with other artists.
I am realizing that as someone who has made a career of art, I have unconsciously assumed that certain standards and goals are part of the package. Such as, successful artists join prestigious galleries, are collected by museums, make a lot of money, are awarded big commissions, are featured in a big glossy art books. Dianne’s death, and her questioning of what’s important, has led me to confront these assumptions—first, to acknowledge that I have them and then to wonder if they serve me well. Striving for fame and fortune (to put it bluntly) may just be a constraint on my happiness and satisfaction with my work. Beyond making a livable income (which I've managed for the past few years) what more do I really need in terms of galleries, exposure, recognition and sales?
I don’t mean to discount personal ambition, mine or anyone else’s. I enjoy challenges, finding new places to exhibit, opportunities for travel, improving my workshops. I’ve always told myself that my goals and desires are realistic and satisfying, that I will take what comes in terms of success but not be unhappy without it, and that I’m not particularly influenced by outside forces. But the truth is that leafing through Art in America, and visiting certain galleries and museums does make me feel I am lacking something, and leaves me a bit uneasy and insecure about my own art career. So I’m trying to sort out which views of Successful Artist come from outside myself, and which are genuinely my own. Outside standards, assimilated without much awareness, can so easily lead to frustration and anxiety and I have to question if they figure in at all in the big picture of what’s important.
I am hoping not only to identify clearly which are my own goals, but also to keep things enjoyable, to realize that achievement beyond making a basic living is an option, not a necessity. Choosing to pursue something I want is better done with optimism, genuine interest and desire to offer something of myself than with a perceived obligation to advance my career or improve my credentials. The line between these can be very thin. I would like to learn to better distinguish one from the other, and to consider the very relaxing and comforting idea that maybe what I already do, and have done, is plenty.
At Dianne's memorial service, several people who had worked with her spoke with deep admiration and respect for her many accomplishments, and contributions she made in her career. But the more personal memories and tributes were far more compelling—when these same colleagues spoke about her traits of honesty and caring, when her brother and sisters and old friends shared favorite memories of her, and when friends of her daughters said she had helped guide and nurture them. To me this was a clear demonstration of what is really important, and I’m hoping to carry this realization forward a little more consciously in my own life.
The painting above was done in the week following Dianne’s death…Somber, 20"x16" ©2012 Rebecca Crowell, oil and mixed media on panel.