The Artist’s Burden

I sat in Copley Plaza in downtown Boston on a hot Saturday. I had writing to work on, magazines to read. It would be a long day. I knew that. This is part of being an artist selling her wares—sitting, waiting, hoping. Sales are great, and every time I set out for an art show that’s what I hope for. But as I tried to ignore the paintings leaving my neighbor’s booth and money going into her pocket, I thought to myself: What is the artist’s life about? Is it about achieving a balance between my ego’s desire for self-aggrandizement and the nobler belief that my art fulfills a higher purpose by bringing forth beauty and truth—-or is it just about making sales?

I watched people pass my booth. The day was almost over and my hope was dead. My neighbor had sold more paintings than was fair. I felt crushed. I hadn’t sold a single one. I put an invisible gold star on each of my paintings instead of the elusive red dot.

As the daylight faded, a man with very dark brown skin approached me. I looked into his face; his eyes lifted me from the muck of my mind. Can I paint you? I silently asked. I’d use purple, alizarin and ultramarine blue if I painted him. His skin glistened slightly with moistness, like a ripe plum. That shine would be the hard part.

“I like your paintings,” he said slowly. He continued talking, making apologies for his broken English. “These your paintings … I can—” he faltered and then said, “I see God in your work.”

I couldn’t respond.

I glanced back at the art show slowly being dismantled. The artists looked pretty dejected. Not much art sold that day despite the hundreds of eyes that had browsed over it all. I carefully laid down my paintings, cardboard between each one. It’s a chore, the artist’s burden. The weight of it gets so heavy that sometimes I forget why I paint in the first place.

I should throw away a painting the moment it’s done, like those sand-painting Buddhist monks. The work is then a prayer of gratitude for the miracle of creation and for my lucky stars that let me do this. Isn’t that good enough for me? Even if I’m not there yet, I had a glimmer that day on Copley Square that someday I will be.

Following in the footsteps of her grandmother, a painter who studied at the Royal Academy Schools in London, Sue Wales studied at Reigate Art School, England, and the Grande Chaumiere and Academie Julienne, Paris. After working as a graphic designer, illustrator and film art director, she began painting full time 16 years ago. She has exhibited widely in London and throughout Britain. She teaches small groups of painters in her historic home in Bath, England, and abroad.

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