This post is by regular contributing writer, John P. Weiss. John is a landscape painter, cartoonist and writer living in Northern California. He studied painting extensively with Scott L. Christensen. He served as editorial cartoonist for various newspapers, and his cartoons appear in several volumes of Charles Brook’s “Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year.” John is also a police chief with 25 years of law enforcement experience.
“The happiest of all lives is a busy solitude” — Voltaire
Author Kent Haruf wrote his novels in a prefabricated shed in the backyard of his home in Salida, Colorado - which seems fitting for this examination of art and loneliness.
Haruf’s last novel before his death was titled Our Souls at Night. This splendid, spare story is set in the plains of eastern Colorado in a small town. It tells the tale of Addie Moore (a widow) and Louis Waters (a widower). Living in a small town, both knew one another’s spouses before their deaths.
One day Addie shows up at Louis’s house and the following conversation ensues (Haruf conveyed conversation without the use of quotation marks).
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we're both alone. We've been by ourselves for too long. For years. I'm lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.
He stared at her, watching her, curious now, cautious.
You don't say anything. Have I taken your breath away? she said.
I guess you have.
I'm not talking about sex.
No, not sex. I'm not looking at it that way. I think I've lost any sexual impulse a long time ago. I'm talking about getting through the night. And lying warm in bed, companionably.
Wisdom from a Canadian artist
Canadian artist Robert Genn was famous for his twice weekly letters. He sent them, via email, to a legion of subscribers who enjoyed his insights and wisdom on creative issues, art and life in general.
Genn weighed in once on the topic of loneliness. He wrote, “The art of effective aloneness includes the understanding that solitude is necessary for the creative gain.” Genn quoted the self-improvement guru Bruce Barton, who said, “Most progress comes out of loneliness.”
Robert Genn noted that many art students are immersed in the collaborative energy of school and classroom interactions. Such students enjoy the social connectivity of art clubs and related activities. But then they graduate.
As Genn wisely notes: “Companionship, for many of us, takes the form of a spouse or significant other. Generational relationships are also particularly rewarding— father-son, grandmother-granddaughter, that sort of thing. Professional associations, occasional clubs, informal gatherings, crit groups and coffee klatches can further the illusion we are not doing this on our own. ‘We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone,” said Orson Welles, ‘Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion, for the moment, that we’re not alone.”
Robert Genn understood that if you wanted to be an artist, you better understand loneliness. Because like it or not, a good deal of painting, writing, sculpting, music and such comes down to independent effort.
Late nights of sustained creation. Early morning epiphanies. Private frustrations and repetitive rituals. Long stretches of weekends and canvas time where you are deep in the thick of it. Navigating the whispers of inspiration, personal expression and tortured execution. This is a big part of what it means to be an artist.
Loneliness is about connection, not proximity
Author Olivia Laing was on NPR awhile back to talk with host Terry Gross about her new novel The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. Olivia’s novel explores the lives of painter Edward Hopper, pop-artist Andy Warhol, photographer David Wojnarowicz and the “outsider” painter Henry Darger.
Olivia’s own journey includes moving to New York with a man she fell in love with, only to have the relationship fall apart and Olivia to find herself “alone” in a new city. It is here that she discovers one can be surrounded by people but still be alone. Loneliness is about connection, not proximity.
It is the painter Henry Darger who is perhaps the most fascinating loner in Olivia’s book. Darger worked for 54 years as a hospital janitor and rented a bedroom where each night he would paint. After his death over 300 paintings were discovered.
The paintings were not without controversy, as many portrayed violence towards children. Still, his work has been vigorously collected. Which begs the question. Is loneliness a prerequisite for great art?
From over-socialization to solitude
In my own life I am immersed in a constant onslaught of interaction and public exposure. My day job as a police chief requires regular communication with the public, co-workers, politicians, vendors and more. It’s challenging, rewarding and exhausting. Exhausting because at heart I am an introvert, most happy in the solitude of my home.
My best creative work seems to flow late at night or early in the morning. When no-one is around and I am free to access my deepest, artistic compulsions. For me, a degree of loneliness and solitude amplifies my creative juices and results in some of my best work. It seems I require abject quiet and no disruptions to tap into the deepest veins of creativity.
I suspect I’m not alone. I’ve met many a creative soul, from writers to painters. A good number of them seem to crave this same undisturbed serenity. Where they can be alone and conjure the best of their artful manifestations.
Yes, some enjoy the conviviality of plein air groups and art associations. But probe deeper and you’ll find that many long for those quiet times of independent work. When they can listen to their muse and produce authentic, original work.
Living simply and paying attention
At one point in Kent Haruf’s novel Our Souls at Night, Addie tells Louis, "I just want to live simply and pay attention to what's happening each day. And come sleep with you at night." And at another point: "I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark.”
In many ways I think Addie’s approach to life is a good prescription for artists. To live simply and pay attention to what’s happening each day. Also, a good deal of painters, photographers and writers can relate to the charms of this “physical world,” with its backyards, gravel, grass and cool nights. These are the places and things that inform many a creative work.
Like Addie and Louis, we all crave some degree of companionship and human interaction. But many artists also require a measure of solitude. Perhaps even loneliness. To harvest the deepest of our creative proclivities and innermost expressions.
Maybe that’s why artists like Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and the reclusive Henry Darger lived the way they did. Whether existing in a sort of subterranean way or hiding in the plain sight of celebrity, they carried a kind of loneliness within them. And today’s aspirational artists should take note and consider whether they can tolerate this dance with loneliness.
Tell me what you think? Is loneliness a factor in your creative life?