Grit-Rich

RachelHands
In my studio: Hand molds in a peat bowl by friend and artist Rachel Parry. Parry made both of these objects from substances she found on her land in Allihies, Beara, Ireland.

Like most of my readers, I track creativity research like a part time job I’ll have for the rest of my life. With an increased interest in understanding how creativity and innovation play out in the arts as well as in every other aspect of life, good vetters on this research are a valuable resource. And no one vets the literature on creativity better than Maria Popova. (If you haven’t yet discovered her site Brainpickings, just one visit and you’ll understand why so many of us stop in every day.)

In a recent post, Popova highlights the work of MacArthur genius grantee Angela Duckworth. As a psychology researcher, Duckworth digs deep into understanding how people use self-control and “grit”—her term for that relentless work ethic of sustained commitment to a long term goal—to achieve success. Duckworth claims that character is at least as important as intellect and that the secret of genius is doggedness rather than innate talent.

(For those who are curious, take Duckworth’s quick test for measuring your grit.)

Sharon Loudon has offered up another window into how these qualities play out in that notoriously difficult, discouraging and yet deliciously satisfying profession of visual art. Her new book, Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists, shares the very personal stories of artists who have found a way to continue doing their work regardless of the financial, emotional, relational and obligational challenges that come with that profession.

What struck me while reading each of these personal histories was how direct and honest the accounts were. Loudon succeeded in maintaining a consistent point of view that thankfully sidesteps those notorious and irritating proclivities to narcissism (A recent article by Jill Steinhauer on Hyperallergic was titled, “Want to Be an Artist? Try a Little Narcissism.” No thanks.) Published by the British press Intellect, Living and Sustaining also stands out for its well designed blending of text, image and white space.

These stories are a heartening reminder that each of us has the option to fashion a career on our own terms. None of the artists included in this collection had success handed to them. They are all hard working and grit-rich.

Those qualities, very similar to Duckworth’s research, are captured in this heartening quote from Carter Foster, Curator of the Whitney Museum, which Loudon wisely placed at the beginning of the collection:

For me, artists are driven to do what they do no matter what. It’s a very powerful ambition and they pursue it in whatever way works best for them. Artists have a practice and pursuing and developing it is always the motivating factor, not whether or not they will sell something or even find a venue in which it can be seen. In my experience, artists are among the most self-motivated, organized, the most disciplined and the hardest working people I know. Sure, some artists are lucky enough that they can make a living doing it while other artists work day jobs or supplement their practice by teaching or other means. But I don’t think the distinction is important. It’s the seriousness of purpose that I admire the most.

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8 comments

  1. Maureen’s avatar

    Great post, Deborah. Love the description “grit-rich” and that marvelous Parry work. Foster’s quote is full of truth, one to save. I know few artists who could imagine doing anything else with their lives. Their passion is self-evident.

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Thanks Maureen. I hope you will come to Boston some day and visit my studio.

  2. Ann Dibble Call’s avatar

    A successful watercolor artist, visiting the elementary/middle school where where I taught, related to the children that while he was at the university working on his art degree, and his “friends” were out playing basketball, he was working on versions one, and then two, and then three of every assignment he prepared for submission. When it was deep winter, and he wanted to submit something relative to the season, he painted on location, and used alcohol to keep the watercolors from freezing……..does that work? Two small examples of the beginnings of his passion and work ethic. Many years later, they have stood him in good stead……his work is sought after…….. grit rich! Great term. Very, very basic principle!

    1. deborahbarlow’s avatar

      Good gritting Ann! Thanks for your contribution to this discussion.

  3. Lawrence Grodecki’s avatar

    Serious to a certain degree, yes, but without an equally keen sense of humor it can drift into masochism more than narcissism. I prefer the latter as then there are no limits to my ability to laugh at myself!

  4. Diane McGregor’s avatar

    As I begin yet another new body of work, I marvel at those artists who maintain a consistent vocabulary over decades of work. I have grit of another sort, I guess, and that is that I keep working, keep searching, and keep reaching. Great post and thanks for the book recommendation (as usual!).

  5. Diane McGregor’s avatar

    PS – I ordered the Kindle version of Louden’s book and I must say that it is a very nicely done Kindle book! Cheaper and readily accessible, too. Thanks again, Deborah!

  6. Ann E. Michael’s avatar

    Interesting–I have been reading Duckworth’s research for different but related reasons: my colleagues and I are hoping to find ways to develop “grit,” or at least to identify it, in our incoming freshman students. Years of research and our own experience tell us that the students who succeed at college are not necessarily the brightest or the best-prepared but those who have motivation and stick-to-it-iveness.

    I feel that the vast majority of the public has no understanding of the concept of a working artist. Of the novelists who write excellent, well-received books that don’t become best-sellers…of the poets who labor at their craft constantly in whatever hours they can set aside from their paying-the-bills jobs…of the working artists and sculptors and dancers and thespians who are not “geniuses” or celebrities but whose work enriches society and culture in many, many ways.

    Yes: “seriousness of purpose.” Very well put.

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