To begin my discussion about the importance of others in supporting the creative process, I would like to present an interview I had with Loren Long, an accomplished artist who has illustrated many books, including Mr. Peabody’s Apples by Madonna, I Dream of Trains by Angela Johnson, a 2004 edition of When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman, and the 2006 redo of the classic The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper.
I met with Loren at a very comfortable and homey small coffeehouse. He seemed right at home there, casual and easygoing. "Everyone thinks that I am so laid-back and relaxed. But my wife will tell you that I am actually quite intense when it comes to my work."
I told Loren that I wanted to get a feel for his internal experiences as he works on a project. Specifically, I said, I was interested in the role of other people in his process. He quickly said that his wife is his biggest support. "She’s not an artist, but she has great taste. I run everything by her, sometimes daily as I’m working on a project. She is my first level of screening. If she likes it, then I feel the confidence to proceed.
"My publishers’ opinions are also very important to me," he continued. "Not just because they determine if my work is adequate. I admire and respect them a lot. I want them to like what I’ve done. I guess that, in general, I always need someone to like my work. If they don’t, my self-doubts come to the surface. You know, like I’m not living up to the grand fantasies I have about myself or about what my work should look like. Although I generally have a pretty good sense about the quality of my work, if the publishers don’t like it, sometimes I feel like I have been found out. Like the show is over; others have finally realized that I am not so good.
"I need ongoing feedback of all my work. Sometimes I need to protect it until I get it to a certain point — a point good enough for show — even for my wife."
Loren made a point of describing the decision he made years ago to keep his life and time balanced between his work and his family. "My wife and children are very important to me. I have artist friends who either are single or devote all of their time to their art and miss out on good relationships with their families. They are much more productive than me — more prolific — they put out a lot of work. But I didn’t want to be an absent husband or father. My dad was always there for me — that’s how I was raised. I am careful to prioritize time with my wife and kids. They make me feel good and they keep me grounded. Like when I got the deal to do the Madonna illustrations. It is hard to get too carried away with yourself as a big-time artist when you’re picking up dog poop in the backyard. I dream about being the greatest. It gives me motivation to keep on swinging, but I keep myself in check by living a normal lifestyle. I remind myself that I am a working artist — like a blue-collar artist —and that keeps me grounded and more able to handle the frustrations that come up.
"I don’t get paralyzed in drawing but I certainly have highs and lows throughout the process.
"I suppose that I have sacrificed my career somewhat by choosing to prioritize my wife and kids. Maybe I would produce more art if I isolated myself into my work."
"Loren," I said, "maybe you have chosen to prioritize your family because you have the strength to connect with them as well as with your art. Some artists seclude themselves in their studios because they are unable to immerse in relationships. They are too frightened of intimacy. I view your lifestyle as a sign of your strength, and I believe that your relationships with your wife and children support and enrich your ongoing capacity to create."
The assumptions you make about the audience are generated from your previous experiences and from your hopeful fantasies of future experience. You tend to assume that your previous encounters with audiences will be repeated. So, if a singer has previously been applauded and acknowledged in her performance, she will likely anticipate future positive response. Fantasizing that the next audience will also be appreciative and affirming, she will feel safer about integrating them into her creative process. But if she has received poor or hostile responses from a previous audience, she will likely anticipate that the next audience will also be critical. This anticipation of a negative response will either halt her creative process or cause her to split off or cut out the idea of the audience. In order to preserve her ability to safely immerse herself in her artwork, she may need to deny that the audience exists or that the audience’s response matters to her at all.
Sometimes an artist will need to deny the existence of the audience so that he can continue his work. Loren Long, the illustrator I interviewed and presented in chapter 3, described needing to do just that in order to create his paintings. He told me this story about being chosen to do the illustration for Madonna’s book Mr. Peabody’s Apples.
Loren’s agent called to tell him that he was to go to New York to meet with Madonna’s publisher. When he arrived, he learned that he was their first choice to illustrate her book but the contract was not yet guaranteed. He was assigned to do a test painting to win or lose the project. Specific instructions were given to pay special attention to the facial features of the characters. Madonna would then decide on the basis of his submission if Loren was a good fit.
Instead of leaving the meeting with a contract in hand as he had anticipated, he was leaving with anxiety about passing a test. He was tense and riddled with self-doubt on his plane ride home. He described feeling the experience as surreal. After all, this was Madonna, one of the most famous people in the world. He became anxious about Madonna and her publisher evaluating his work. He decided right then that he could not consider his audience at all. He consciously blocked them out. "I knew it would have been difficult to draw with that pressure. I told myself that this project would be business as usual and that helped me to relax. I just have to do what I do."
Once he had blocked Madonna from his mind, he confronted another problem, for upon his first reading of her manuscript, he had already envisioned the most climactic picture for the book. But the problem was that his image did not show faces. He struggled with what to submit: should he follow the requirements and change his visions about what the picture should be, or should he follow his own creative instincts and create what was in his mind? He decided to be true to himself, accepting that drawing the picture without faces could result in rejection.
Once he decided to paint the picture the way he had envisioned it, he was able to enjoy his process and complete the painting. To his delight, Madonna loved his work, and he was chosen for the project. He found that once he had been chosen, he was less intimidated by her megastar status. He felt she was already in his corner, and he was able to integrate her feedback and ideas throughout the actual process of illustrating the book.
---excerpts from STANDING AT WATER'S EDGE
Causes Anne Paris Supports
Savethechimps.org, Bonobokids.org, Elevate Hope Foundation