Asheville Art Studio

Contentment vs Restlessness

oil painting landscape art

It seems that one of the goals of every world religion, philosophy and self-help guru is the propagation of inner contentment. I love that all too seldom cherished inner quiet. The search for that illusive contentment is why I go hiking as much as I do, but it honestly seems that the world, though preaching the value of contentment, is dead set against us actually experiencing it. I mean really, turn on the TV or listen to the radio or go to the mall and we are constantly and ruthlessly bombarded with the message “you are not content! But…THIS will make you feel content!” The thing is, nearly EVERYTHING is sold with the promise of contentment, and because we’re so desperate for it, we buy “it” (whatever it is). Then we feel a moment of bliss (maybe) and then in moments, “it” gets old and no longer delivers any contentment at all.

In no way do I want to diminish the longing for contentment. I could not do that even if I tried. My faith informs me that every human being was created for absolute contentment, but that the whole system is broken now and humankind currently is cut off from the very source of contentment. And so we long for the very thing we run from. This is the ultimate conundrum.

Restlessness has fueled every quest and exploration and is responsible for all the innovation of our race.

However, I don’t think the concept of restlessness is the opposite of contentment. I think ingratitude, entitlement and greed are the opposite of that inner peace we value and search for, but I don’t really think restlessness qualifies as the opposite. Honestly, my opinion is that restlessness is to an artist what life blood is to a living creature: it feeds and stimulates the creation of something amazing and beautiful and life-giving. What I’m most afraid of is to become too “comfortable” and “complacent”, that I stop longing for something new, dreaming of something better and pursuing something of greater value and beauty. For the most part, I think restlessness has fueled every quest and exploration and is responsible for all the innovation of our race.

So, we may well sit and think of all that we have, all that we’ve achieved (or have been given, depending on your own outlook on such matters) and we can feel a sense of immense gratitude, peace and contentment. And the next moment begin wondering “but I wonder what would happen if I tried THIS?”. Can restlessness and contentment become friends? I believe so. I don’t think one negates the other at all. In fact, I think that true contentment and gratitude creates a quiet place in our minds and in that quiet, dreams are born and imagination can explode.

As an artist, as a painter, I paint mostly landscapes. I love my studio in Asheville’s River Arts District. I love creating artwork in that context, amidst such a great group (over 220) of artists with open studios. It feels tempting to just get comfortable with what I do; to get comfortable with what sells and to become predictable. But then I’d never feel restless, and though comfortable, I’d stop truly creating. And I would more closely resemble an assembly line worker than an artist.

I’m an artist, and I long for contentment. But I am trying to experience contentment in the context of a sublime restlessness that never seems to stop looking around the next turn in the road. What’s there? Is it the same as here? Let’s go and see. That mindset fuels all my creativity and I think compliments the inner quiet I (sometimes) truly experience in life.

"Why Should I Purchase Artwork?"

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As an artist with an open studio, there are lots of questions I get asked from people who are visiting Asheville’s River Arts District. Sometime, I should make a list of the funniest (i.e. strangest!) questions I get asked but that’s for another blog post. :)

There is one question out there that is very rarely asked but is actually a valid question: Why should I purchase artwork? I almost think that if you’re asking that question, you probably shouldn’t be buying artwork. You should just go home to your concrete cube, turn on your single light bulb in the middle of the cube, sit down on your mat and stare at the wall and drink your protein smoothie. What? You have a nice house on a hillside with a nice view? You have a wide screen TV? You have granite countertops in your kitchen? Why? Is that necessary? As far as basic human needs go, we just need shelter (a roof and preferably some walls). Is the rest necessary? As far as basic human needs go, we just need food. Are herbs and spices necessary? Is awesome flavor “necessary”?

Is artwork a good investment? Yes. Absolutely every time.

Why have a nice house? Why have a nice car? Why have anything other than what is absolutely necessary? Simply because those extra things give us joy. Why sprinkle herbs de Provence on your chicken? Those herbs don’t add any nutritional value, so they’re unnecessary, correct? Technically, yes. But we add them because it just really makes the chicken taste awesome, right? Herbs de Provence gives us joy. The nice extras on top of the absolute rock-bottom necessities are added to life because they give us joy.

So, is artwork a good investment? Yes. Absolutely every time. Joy is beyond value. Can’t afford a $100,000 painting by some famous artist? Neither can I. (That’s why I paint my own paintings!) What I’m talking about is not necessarily a huge financial investment in art (unless you have deep pockets and that artwork you would like to purchase gives you joy. If that’s you, please email me at stclaireart@gmail.com or visit my studio at 344 Depot Street, Asheville NC. For the rest of us, what I’m talking about is even small, wise investments into a local artist because he or she is creating things that add joy to this world. When you purchase a painting or glass vase or a ceramic pitcher or piece of hand crafted furniture, you not only invest into something that adds joy to your own life, but you’re investing in another human being, enabling them to continue to create, which gives them joy. Joy goes all around!

So now and then, reach for that nice bottle of wine, sprinkle those herbs on your meat (or veggies) turn on some beautiful music, watch a sunset and sing. Why? Because it’s a necessity? Well actually, yes I think it is.

What Was Art School Like?

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

Art Center College of Design, Pasadena, CA

The other day, a family of five came into my art studio in Asheville. They’d been browsing in and out of the different art studios in the River Arts District and had a lot to say about the artwork they’d seen and artists they’d met. Super nice people. This couple’s son said he was interested in pursuing art as a career and Jim (the dad) asked me if I’d been to art school for training and if so, what was it really like? Was it worth it? Oooooo. Good blog post idea!

So, I’ll try to condense what was a half hour conversation into a short blog.

I really think that if it’s the “right” art school, it can be really valuable to an artist. “Self-taught” is fine, don’t get me wrong. No one taught me the technique I’m known for in my artwork. I made it up. But…I made it up using the tools I got from my education. I went to Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. It was extraordinarily challenging but was definitely an amazing experience. I absolutely loved college. One of the things I learned there was to be organized with my time (a valuable tool I’ve used ever since). The work load was so intense and the pressure on the students was incredible. The years I attended, Art Center was ranked #2 (right behind Harvard School of Law) in terms of stress level on the students.

“Crit time” reduced us college students to tears…”

This was also the place I learned to take artistic criticism. I had to either learn to take critique or emotionally crumble! See, upon completion of our assignment, we would post our work on the walls around the classroom. Then we’d each present our assignment, and each of the other students would take turns expressing what was right and what was wrong with what we’d done. There was none of this “now remember, with art, there are NO MISTAKES”. Don’t believe it. “Crit time” reduced us college students to tears. It was brutal and really, really helpful (if you opened up to listening).

The other really helpful thing we learned was about the correct way to compose a piece of art. Did you know there are good and bad color combinations and good and bad compositions for a painting? Oh yes. We learned color theory and we learned about the laws (google "the Golden Section” sometime) that govern makes a pleasing composition of a piece of art. When I got to this point, Jim (the dad in my now captive audience) asked “What about abstract art? Would those rules apply to types of art other than landscapes or still life?” Oh my gosh, YES. Color and good composition are all you have with an abstract painting. Knowing the rules is even MORE important in an abstract.

My time at art college was amazing. I so appreciate the instructors, the brutal critique (though I didn’t enjoy that at the time) and the awesome life-long friends I made there. Because of all that, I’m able to now paint full-time and live in an awesome place like Asheville (and talk to nice families coming into my art studio asking me about my experience at art school. :)

"The Four Seasons on the French Broad River"

“The Four Seasons”

“The Four Seasons”

Growing up in Southern California, I never really experienced “seasons” per se. There was “foggy season” (May-June), “Fire Season” (September-October) and the rest was just hot. Living now in Asheville, North Carolina, I’m so loving the rhythm actual seasons bring to the year. Winter doesn’t last ALL that long, and it usually brings with it a few beautiful snow days. Spring is amazing. Absolutely awesome. Dogwoods are blooming and daffodils and tulips are going crazy. Summer is hot yes, but perfect for tubing down the French Broad River, hiking and camping up in the higher elevations. And then there is autumn. Oh my gosh. Autumn was always just a “theoretical” season growing up. Autumn in the Blue Ridge mountains of Western North Carolina is amazing. Autumn brings more visitors to my art studio in Asheville’s River Arts District than any other season of the year.

“…the power of beauty inspires the power of healing…”

The beauty of seasonal change is a big part of what I love about living in Asheville and working in my art studio. So I was really excited to have been asked by Mission Hospital to create a “Four Seasons” series for their Asheville campus. Each panel is 42” x 16” and each are covered with multiple layers of solar-resistant resin (so the surface is glassy-smooth).

This series was inspired by the many floats down the French Broad River that Joy and I make every summer, and it was great fun depicting each season, trying to think of the particulars about each one (blooming dogwoods in the spring panel and pink rhododendrons in the summer panel). My hope is that this series gives the doctors, nurses and patients at Mission the opportunity to “get lost” in each scene, and that the power of beauty inspires the power of healing. I think that’s possible!

Of Mountains and Oceans

“Teahupoo Thunder” (36” x 60”)

“Teahupoo Thunder” (36” x 60”)

Last January (over six months ago now), I woke up in the middle of the night with a couple of ideas for two very impractical paintings. As I explained in a previous blog, I don’t usually TRY to paint an impractical subject matter, because impractical ideas are often “hard sells” in Asheville. Because I am a full time painter in the River Arts District, I don’t have the luxury of a “public-opinions-be-damned” sort of attitude. If people don’t like my artwork or can't relate to it, they aren’t going to buy it. Does this make me a “sell out”? I’ll let the reader decide that, but the bank really likes it when I pay my mortgage. Thankfully, most of what I know sells off my walls is an absolute joy to create, so I really am not the “angsty” sort of artist. But every now and then, I just have to paint something whether or not I think it will sell. And thankfully, my wife Joy is wholly supportive of those times because it’s at these points I grow as an artist.

So last winter, I had in my head a view of a crashing wave and a craggy, snow-capped mountain. For the wave, I wanted to depict the violent force of the water slamming into the shoreline. The challenge for the wave was to depict movement and to keep the shapes “soft” and fluid. And I knew I had to apply the white paint LAST because white is a very opaque color of paint and because I’m painting on top of textured metallic leaf, I will ruin a painting if the paint is applied in a manner that blocks the light from penetrating the paint (so it can then bounce back off the metallic background layer). So I worked with varying shades of blues and greens for 90% of the piece, and then finally applied all the white at the very end.

“Top of the World” (48” x 36”)

“Top of the World” (48” x 36”)

For the mountain scene, I combined several photos of the Himalayan mountain peaks because, well…because if you want to do it right, you might as well use the tallest mountains in the world for inspiration, right? This one was a challenge simply because it’s basically shades of just three colors: Blue, black and white.

So…maybe my definition of “impractical” is all washed up.

Both of these pieces are “impractical” as far as my Asheville clientele simply because a couple from Poughkeepsie that are walking down the street to my art studio in Asheville will not talking with each other about “do you think he’ll have any paintings of the ocean or the Himalayas?” People generally want to purchase a painting to remind them of their trip to Asheville, so…these two pieces are in the impractical category.

That’s okay. I can totally live with that. But I have to say, after I hung these on the wall for their grand debut yesterday morning, they got all sorts of really positive attention all day long. So…maybe my definition of “impractical” is all washed up. Honestly, I’d like that very much!

Lessons I've Learned as an Artist

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I love Asheville and I especially love painting in my studio in Asheville in the summer time. Yes, it’s hot and muggy, but there are so many visitors wondering through the River Arts District — it’s really a fun environment to create artwork in! So many people and so many conversations! Some of the questions I’m asked are hysterical, and some are really deep. Last week, I had a couple visiting with me who asked an interesting question. And as I was answering them it occurred to me I should blog about it. The question was “what has being an artist taught you?” That struck me as a really huge (and very personal) question. I could probably write a whole book on that subject, but for the sake of brevity, I’ll condense my thoughts to five points.

  1. Thinking outside the box is what creativity is all about.

When you learn art techniques in school, you study the “masters” of art history and in a sense, you copy their techniques in order to learn them. In a sense, this places each modern artist in a wonderful place...you are standing on the backs of people like Monet, Renoir, Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and on and on back to the first cave painters. You learn the rules (yes, THERE ARE RULES TO ART). Once you learn the techniques and rules, then (the fun part!) you learn how to remix them into something brand new and unique. This is where rules (some of them) are broken. Learning how and when to break the rules...that takes a life time of playing with art and composition.

2. Mistakes are necessary for growth

My whole technique was developed through many (and on-going) experiments. Some of those experiments work out well. Some of them fail completely. How you respond to a mistake is crucial I think, and I would guess this applies to all of life. If you let them crush and discourage you (and I have let mistakes do that), then that's the end of the story. But if the mistake prompts you to ask questions (like, "why did that happen?", "how did that happen?", "how can I make it do this or that?") then a new experiment takes shape. This is play. This is how play works! Very few mistakes in life are utterly crippling. Most of the mistakes we make can and should prompt serious questions, and as we search for answers...play happens and life goes on.

3. Marketing is really important if you want to be a full-time artist

I wish I could paint all day. I wish I didn't have to take the time to work social media (or write blogs :) but that is not possible. If people do not see the work of an artist, they won't appreciate it, and if they don't appreciate it, they won't purchase it, and if they don't purchase it, you can't be a full-time artist (unless you've won the lottery and can blow through the winnings for the rest of your life). Connecting to people and marketing what you do is really important. How to do that best is a complete mystery to me, but I’m learning. I'm not wired that way, but I know people who ARE and I ask for advice or pay them to for their help.


4. Rest and rejuvenation is crucial for creativity

For me, creativity and moments of epiphany happen when I'm quiet. That's why I walk a lot. Almost every day off, we're hiking -- getting out into nature and breathing in the peace and quiet. Being in nature is like a baby being in it's mother's lap. It's just where we belong. Something almost magical happens sometimes when I'm hiking and enjoying the beauty of creation. The experience creates in me a wonder; it takes me back to being like a child. In that place, my own creativity is excited. I have likened all this (quiet time) as "breathing in" and my own creating as "breathing out". One is necessary if you want the other.


5. People are more important than art.

I work in a public forum. People walk into my studio all day long and ask me what I'm working on and inquire about my technique. It's tempting to wish them all away so I can quietly enter "my creative zone" and paint in undistracted peace. But I'm always reminding myself that the people who come into my studio are infinitely more important than any piece of artwork I create. Artwork only lasts so long. People are eternal (that's my belief anyway). And according to my faith system, people are created in the image of God, so if I love God, I should see him in the face of every single person that enters my studio (and treat them accordingly).

St.Claire Art Opening at the AC Hotel, Asheville

The rooftop of the AC Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

The rooftop of the AC Hotel, Asheville, North Carolina

As a full-time artist, I hear a lot about the importance of "self-promotion", "putting yourself out there", and "getting noticed". And as I've been doing this art gig full-time for some years now, it's occurring to me that it's a really easy thing to start believing that success is measured by how much attention I get. That sounds really arrogant. Let me explain what I mean.

A few months ago, I was asked to have my artwork displayed at the roof-top bar of the AC Hotel in downtown Asheville in August. This is a real honor, as this hotel is truly amazing. Honestly, going to the art opening and reception, I will be so out of my league. But there's something really intriguing about "schmoozing" with the elite. If you do it enough, you begin to believe you are part of "the" crowd. I remember when I was an "emerging" artist, I'd look at more accomplished artists and see what they were doing to promote their work and my head would swim. "How do they get all this attention? What do you have to do to get that?" are questions that continually ran around in my head.

…”self-promotion" is different than "art-promotion".

One is toxic and the other in not.

In the last couple days, I've been doing a lot of planning for this upcoming art opening at the AC (which is August 15th by the way) and it occurred to me that this is a fine thing to do, and it's necessary for an artist to promote their artwork (if you want it to sell). But "self-promotion" is different than "art-promotion". One is toxic and the other in not. I really do want people to value and enjoy my artwork. That feels awesome, and I do seek that. But having what I do valued and validated can NOT be confused with having my person valued and validated. If "I" am seeking value and validation with the attention "I" get, then I become really ugly. Everything becomes about self-promotion, and whatever attention I get will never be enough. Not really. And because of that, I'd always be looking for more and bigger and better ways of self-promotion. The bigger the event, the more attention I garner for my work, the more valuable I'll feel as a person.

I've decided to repudiate all that. What if value is not found in doing the big things that get all the attention, but in doing little things well…by adding beauty to the mundane chores of life? When I look out at a local mountainside, I see beauty everywhere: in wildflowers that will be wilted next week, in small pebbles with pink crystals in them that maybe no one will ever (EVER) notice again, in the random cardinal flying overhead, in the sound of the breeze through the leaves. Beauty in nature completely permeates the mundane. My faith tells me I'm created in the image of God, and if God infused even the mundane with beauty, then maybe that's how I reflect that Image. Maybe as a creator myself, maybe THAT'S the "biggest" thing I can do to express who and what I really am. This means that maybe by adding beauty to the smallest of things: to washing the dishes for my wife, to smiling at the person in front of me at the grocery store, to letting someone cut in front of me on the freeway, to playing with my grandchildren, to doing things no one will notice or care much about...maybe THOSE small things are really the biggest, most satisfying things that "real" life is all about.

So I'll got to this art opening at the AC Hotel, and I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun. But I'm there to promote my art, not myself. Now excuse me. I'm going to do the dishes. :)

"How do you decide what to paint?"

One of the questions I regularly get asked from visitors to my art studio in Asheville is “where do you get all these ideas to paint? Have you been to all these places?” My answer varies but basically, I explain that no, I have not necessarily been to all these places, though I have been to some of them and I’m always taking photos. “Oh,” they’ll respond, “so you work from photos then?” Yes. About half the things I paint are inspired by photos I’ve taken or received from a client. I find I especially lean on a photo if it’s a commissioned piece of art from someone who has something specific in mind. The rest of what I paint basically reflect the happy places in my head.

“Because this is my job, I have to paint

mostly what I think people will purchase…”

Because I’m a full-time artist, I need my work to sell so I’m always listening to the people that visit my studio (even when they’re whispering to each other — yes, I can hear you sometimes!). This is SUPER helpful to me because I know what is really resonating with people. When I paint something new and hang it on the wall and it gets a ton of attention, loud sirens and blinking red lights go off in my head: PAINT MORE LIKE THIS! So I do. Because this is my job, I have to paint mostly what I think people will purchase in my River Arts District art studio by visitors coming to Asheville for a vacation. So most of my paintings are local or generic scenes. That said, I’m most excited right now about two really impractical pieces of art I started thinking about last winter: A 3’ x 6’ single crashing wave and a 3’ x 5’ scene featuring a composition of towering, jagged Himalyan mountain peaks.

What does a crashing wave or jagged mountains have to do with Asheville, North Carolina? Nothing. “Don’t you want these to sell?” you ask. Well, yes I want them to sell but I don’t care if these two sell or not. See, every now and then, I think it’s important that you express something really personal and distinctly “you”, whether or not anyone else ever appreciates it. Maybe these paintings won’t sell, and that’s okay. That said, these two are thankfully getting a ton of attention as I’m working on them, so that’s really encouraging. I’ll post the completion photos here when the time comes.

Close up of silver leaf wave.

Close up of silver leaf wave.

Interior shot of my wave (with the first layer of paint) and the mountain scene.

Interior shot of my wave (with the first layer of paint) and the mountain scene.

One of my All-Time Heroes

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When we were living in Orlando, Florida, we discovered a museum in Winter Park that turned out to be a complete surprise to me. The Morse Museum houses the largest single collection of Tiffany stained glass anywhere in the world. To be honest, I had no real interest in stained glass at the time, and to me, I associated the name “Tiffany” with expensive jewelry. But from the moment I entered this museum, I was completely blown away by the unbelievable beauty of the glass. This was pure art and I was completely unprepared by the beauty of it all.

One of the things about being a full-time artist with an open art studio, is that you hear all sorts of comments from visitors to Asheville’s River Arts District. Thankfully, most of the comments I get are really kind and very encouraging. Some comments are not very kind though, and honestly even if I get one negative comment out of a hundred, that one comment can bother me. But what would it do to the emotional nature of an artist if he or she never really made a profit from their lifetime of art-creating and if a lot of their creations were simply unnoticed or completely unappreciated? I know I’d crumble.

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But this is exactly what I appreciate about Louis Comfort Tiffany as a man. He produced countless stained glass windows and lamps and he never did make a profit. How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit? I have no idea, but that’s exactly what Tiffany did. Don’t get me wrong, some people recognized the incredible beauty of what this man was creating, but not nearly enough. There are stories about how people would purchase his stained glass windows at auction and pull out the glass and discard it, keeping only the leading so they could sell it. Unbelievable.

How can you keep producing and actually improving in your creativity and your craft and not be making a profit?

And in 1902, President Roosevelt had all the Tiffany windows in the White House removed (because they looked so “dated”).

The fact that this incredible artist/craftsman was able to forge on and keep going, and keep growing and keep creating his art is absolutely amazing to me. But this all just really makes me sad to think he never really was appreciated. That he did not rely on being appreciated says a whole lot about him. He is my hero.


Regarding "Inspiration" vs "Necessity"

A few days ago, a visitor to my art studio was watching me paint for several minutes, asking good questions about what I was doing, and sharing some of her adventures in artistic endeavors. Then she asked me a really good question that I think bears addressing: “What do you do when you have to paint but don’t WANT to paint?” Then she followed up with a related question: “How do you paint when you just don’t feel inspired?”

There are so many ways I can answer those questions. I wrote a blog a while back “How to create when you don’t feel creative” that addresses some of this, but I’ll answer from a different direction here. 

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy.

It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions…

I’m a full-time artist and I have my studio in an awesome tourist Mecca: Asheville, North Carolina. We get visitors all year long from all over the country (and other countries) who spend the day wandering through the art studios of over 220 artists, looking at the artwork and getting to know the artists. Because this is more than just a hobby for me, we don’t eat if I don’t sell paintings and I won’t sell paintings if I’m not producing them. So I don’t have an option regarding whether or not I’m painting. That’s my job. What if a doctor didn’t show up in an operating room, or an airline pilot didn’t show up at the airport, or an Uber driving didn’t show up in his car or a restaurant owner didn’t show up at the restaurant simply because “they didn’t WANT to show up”?  I’m not different.

Art is not just born in a moment of whimsy. It’s not controlled strictly by the emotions. If it were, then most of the professional artists I know would go out of business. Just like everyone else trying to earn a living, professional artists have to do what they do, do it as best they can, and then hope it sells. 

I can’t answer for any other artist out there, but personally, I’ve never NOT wanted to paint. I love painting because I love imagining (I can’t help it). But the issue of painting when I’m not “inspired” usually just means I have to be quiet, go for a walk, listen to music. Creating involves emptying the creative “tank” inside my head and when that tank gets drained, it’s important to fill it back up again. So I hike. I pray. I think. I listen to leaves rustling in the trees. I try to listen to God. How one “fills up” would probably be a personal thing that varies from artist to artist, but that’s how I do it. 

In short, I don’t have the option of just painting when I’m “inspired”. If my creative tank is empty, it’s because I’m not regularly filling it up and while I sometimes don’t have control of when and how my “tank” is empty, I do have control over how often I am filling it. It takes time. Resting time. Quiet time. My culture would look at that sort of thing is frivolous and unproductive. It is not. For an artist (and I assume everyone?), that replenishing time is absolutely essential, and that’s an element of my culture I try vigorously to take exception to.