what makes art memorable?

After graduating college, I became an art teacher in the public school system. My friends, who went on to get their MA degrees, thought I had compromised my future as an artist. I understood their point, but I needed to find my own passion independent of the classroom. I was serious about making art since it was the only thing I ever wanted to do.

In many ways the path I chose was much harder than my friends who spent two more years specializing in painting, sculpture and printmaking. There was a higher degree of sophistication to their work by the time they graduated. They taught at the college level and were part of a different kind of community than myself. My painting career started off a little more hit or miss.

The question for me now is, did my work suffer because I hadn’t gotten my graduate degree? Was my art less professional because of it? This is where it all gets fuzzy for me. I recently visited the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and discovered the work of artist Maud Lewis. She was a primitive painter uneducated in the formal ways of art institutions. Born in 1903, she grew up with severe crippling juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which left her with painful and swollen joints. Still, her will to paint took over her life. Every inch of her small one room cabin (which was installed in the middle of the large gallery) was painted with flowers, birds and butterflies. She painted hundreds of small canvases depicting the life around her. Her work was simple and direct, but most of all, it had an obsessive, compulsive quality. She is recognized today as one of Canada’s most important Folk Art artists.

Although I’m not a big fan of Folk art, I was deeply touched by Maud’s work. I could feel her soul and her drive to keep herself alive and vital with color and brushstroke. Her need to leave her mark gripped me. This I could understand, after all, isn’t that what I want also? I felt connected to her in a way I never expected. Maud Lewis’ body of work went beyond commercial fads and academic leanings; it contained the essence of life itself.

It’s in this fact that gets to the point of my epiphany. Art may have many voices, but it speaks only one language. Whether a person is recognized as a professional, or not, is irrelevant in the long haul. Great art has passion and heart. It has to have an honesty that continues to haunt long after it’s been shown. None of this can be learned in a classroom.