Biggest regret as an artist

A video blog by artists Rafi and Klee – repeating a podcast they do – asked “What is your greatest regret as an artist?”

Both these artists started as professionals only after other lives, only later in their lives…let’s say, before the half way point. Neither are art school trained professionals who did other work and then steered back into art. They were artists at heart all the time, but the road to art-based prosperity was a windy one (they attest). So they are entitled to ask.

Current crisis aside, I say never has such a question been more germane than today, in a world exploding with creativity and creative people. “The Call”, that deep, instinctive, creative drive to make something that connects to others on a profound and positive level has never been greater or more urgent in the world than now.

We all have regrets but I dare suggest that life throws us ‘Creatives’ way more curve balls. Don’t make me start arguing about that, I’ll blow a gasket. Which means Rafi and Klee got significant responses.

But on a personal level, tho’, I found I was unable to answer. I tried, but could not. This is because I really cannot claim to have any significant regrets. If I strive to live honestly, as honestly to myself as I possibly can…authentically, every moment mindfully, and I take complete responsibility for everything that happens in my life, even the stuff that seems to happen but could not possibly be my fault, then how can I regret?

There have been plenty of times when I can say, ‘I wish that had turned out differently’. But that is not regret. And there have been times when I just could not make the present turn into the future I wanted. That’s called disappointment, facing your limitations, being sent a message by the universe, discrimination, social injustice, bad timing and so on. Make the most of what life throws at you…

That’s as close as I can get. I can wish that at certain points life had gone differently.

So here is my ‘greatest regret’ as an artist: When I was seventeen I spent an afternoon with a very successful Fort Lauderdale Florida artist, Lee Wilson, in his lovely studio-shop, just a block from the ocean. We talked about art. I remember being excited that I was talking to someone who was thinking and seeing painting at the level of detail and understanding that I experienced it.

Lee’s shop was actually his studio. His art filled every available surface. Half and quarter watercolor works were stacked out from the walls, and he painted in the back of the open space. This was actually a single room maybe 16 feet wide, (with a door leading to an office and washroom in back), the kind of affordable, up a side street from the beach type of commercial space built in the 1940s all over South Florida. All windows across the front and you couldn’t pass without seeing the place was full of paintings. With Lee in the back most days, painting away. Just walk in and say Hi and buy art. Cash was king and people that came to Fort Lauderdale had it.

Lee was an absolute master at watercolour landscape. And a good salesman too. He painted and talked and I watched his brushwork and control of the surface, and we talked about art and his artwork and the colours and light of Florida. I pointed out what parts of which paintings were ‘really really good’ and why, and eventually he asked me if I took art in high school, and I said, No, the stuff they do is terrible! I’d be too embarrassed.

Lee had painted for years and was the consummate professional. He loved Florida, the Glades and seascapes and dunes, loved painting in watercolors, and hammered out as much affordable art as he could sell through his front door. “You should be in art school,” he told me.

We were visiting relatives and my Aunt had said one quiet Saturday morning, “Why don’t you take the car and go down and visit my great friend Lee, he’d be in his studio, and I’m sure he’d be happy to meet you.” And she gave me the address. I checked the road map, got my route and went. It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me she’d set it all up.

But that’s hardly the end of it. We got back from Florida and a few weeks later a hand written letter arrived from Lee Wilson, for me. He’d asked my Aunt for my address. “You should be an artist. You should go to art college.” That was the gist of it. “Start now,” he implored, and in a few short, condensed pages, he gave me the essentials of mastering watercolours. To start with the traditional paints and learn to mix from the earth colours. To use the right size and type of brushes and learn how to manage the surface of the watercolour paper.

He was mentoring me. He was so sure I was, inside, an artist waiting to develop he reached out.

My aunt said, “Lee was very excited to me you. He tells me he’s never met a young man who he was so sure should be an artist. You should follow that up.”

As impressed as my mother and father were, that was simply not an option they would support. Besides, I had other fish to fry. Things to prove, oats to sow, limits to test. My motto for the next ten years: “Continuous acceleration.” Full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes; never look back, they might be gaining; The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.

All that bravado aside, I put the letter away for a couple of years, but in a summer break from University, got it out, read it again, and went to the art shop in Weston and bought all the supplies Lee had listed. And then taught myself how to mix from traditional earth tones, how to control and balance colours, how to manipulate the watercolour paint and paper. And that was it. Once or twice a year I’d paint something.

“Self-supporting” professional artists, in my parents view, were exotic trades people, a couple steps above stone masons or tanners, maybe, but probably not as successful as locksmiths or Rotostatic carpet cleaners. And definitely very far from the safe, clean ‘office work’ they imagined for me. And famous artists, well, they were enigmas, all child prodigies, right? Making masterpieces and supporting their families shortly after learning to hold a crayon, or thereabouts.

But I do wonder sometimes if there could have been a different future and if I’d have been a different person, where would I be today?

But then we all do.