A Long Marriage

I originally published this post in August 2006 as A Brush with Destiny, but I've brought it back under a new title. I'll have a new post in a few days.

Uttar 231, encaustic on panel, 18 x 18 inches, 2004


Art and I have been together for almost 35 years. Until recently I was the one who carried the financial responsibility in the relationship, working full time to sustain the two of us. Art was emotionally supportive most of the time, but I’ll be honest, a financial sponge. Virtually my entire paycheck—a good one, because I worked as a senior editor at a high-profile women’s magazine—went into maintaining the relationship. Give, give, give. That was me. When I got a raise, where did the extra money go? Art. Those jokes about "ball and chain" were no joke to me. But I was a woman enthralled.

I was still in my Teens when the marriage began. I couldn’t have known it would develop so lopsidedly. Art was generous at the beginning, arousing in me feelings I’d never before experienced. I learned to see as if I were seeing for the first time, to savor every nuance of color and shape, line and tone. But after the honeymoon we settled into a pattern that would become all too familiar: I gave. Art took. Love, in my case, was not just visually impaired, it was sitting blindfolded in a dark room. I worked assiduously to keep the relationship going. If there was an opportunity to make it better, I took it. I learned to ignore the indignities while reveling in the generosities. I also sought out those who were in similar relationships—an informal AA for overcompensating partners—and we made many visits to galleries and museums.

Things changed in 1998 when my job ended. Instead of looking for another nine-to-five, I took on freelance projects to pay the bills. Art, to my profound surprise and delight, picked up the slack and over the next few years became the primary breadwinner. Art has been supporting the two of us ever since. I’m on cloud nine. This, finally, is the relationship I’d hoped for.

Before you brand me as a feminist failure, trapped with an alternately withholding and rewarding partner, let me tell you this: Art is not a man. Or a woman. Had it been either, I would have left long ago, I assure you. I’m a painter, and art—lower-case a—has been my primary relationship all these years. After a day of working behind a desk, I went to my studio to paint. Whatever transpired from nine to five, I could count on an evening of intense passion—sensual satisfaction, bitter struggle or utter bliss. Then I went home, sometimes to a flesh-and-blood lover, but always with painting on my mind.

Back when I was in art school, a professor earnestly informed me that if I wanted to be taken seriously, I would have to "choose between being a woman and being an artist." He was onto something in terms of duality, but he had the specifics all wrong, and not just because his comment was so irredeemably

Silk Road 68, encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches, 2006

sexist. Creative jobs intertwine art and life. The idea is not to choose between the elements but to come to terms with the nature of the twist. I call my union with art a marriage only partly in irony because, for better or worse, it is the longest-running relationship of my life. Other artists with varying degrees of tongue in cheek, have described their art liaisons as "the other person in my marriage," "living with devil," and "a jones, plain and simple." Rarely is it simply a career.

The idea of art as an addiction, a jones, is not so far fetched, by the way. Sometimes when I’m painting and the endorphins are firing, there’s no "art," no "me." There’s just brush and brain in a euphoric vortex of energy, an ectoplasmic blob at one with the universe. It’s as good as sex. And I’ll do anything short of armed robbery to ensure that I have the means to experience it as often as I can. Do accountants have this kind of relationship to their careers? Do dentists?

Whatever you call it, each artist’s relationship to art is a unique combination of give and take, pain and pleasure, or any number of other antithetical concepts jostling for supremacy. Some of these emotional clashes are generated by the creative act itself. Unlike Sunday painting, which I’m told is a relaxing and enjoyable hobby, when it’s your life’s work, every brush stroke is charged not only with paint but with esthetic decisions, intuitive flow running smack up against intractable deadlines for the next show.

There’s also that tantalizing promise of a livelihood repeatedly extended and withdrawn. Working 80 hours a week without a steady income is not satisfying, no matter how ecstatic the work itself, so every little success—a big sale, an interested gallery, critical attention—sends you soaring until the trajectory of the arc sends you crashing back down.

The good news is that art means money these days. With the recent increase in the number of fairs, galleries, and collectors big and small, there are more emerging and mid-career artists than ever before able to sustain themselves with the sale of their work. I am one of them.

Art and I celebrate our 35th anniversary this year. It’s still an open marriage as flesh-and-blood lovers come and go, but we will grow old together. The gift to mark 35 years together is coral. Please, no presents. I mention it only because I often use coral, the color, in my painting. Coral is a lovely mix of cadmium red light with a touch of spectrum yellow, and just enough titanium white to soften it to a blushing, roseate hue.

Vicolo 4, encaustic on panel, 12 x 12 inches, 2004


Deanna said...

That gives me hope! My Art is still sucking all my resources and hasn't started pulling his own weight. Thanks for the inspiration.

Daniella Woolf said...

J-that was gorgeous. I sit here smiling and laughing with my mistress! Mazel Tov on your anniversary.

Kim Tyler said...

How wonderful to read this passionate, humerous, and delightful essay! I can totally relate to the idea of art being the "third person in a marriage". As the partner of an artist who is probably a lot like you, I marvel at the intensity, the constant "jones" that she has for her life partner, art! You describe it so beautifully, and I think you've helped me understand a few things that maybe I've needed to get As the occasional third wheel in our relationship, I can keep on rolling and appreciate the beauty coming out of her brush!

Anonymous said...

Conjugal Coral? Too strong. I've been wanting to do a salmon-y coral. THANKS!
Still like the brush with density ;-)

Andrea and Kim said...

Yes, you are so inspirational with both of your art showcased here (words and paintings). I very much like your paintings and particularly the Silk Road Series.

Thank you for sharing...I will be back to see more.

Anonymous said...

I loved this Joanne. You are indeed an inspiration. Plus your work is gorgeous, especially that last fire red piece, but it's all good.


Natalya Khorover Aikens said...

wonderful words! congratulations on your anniversary.... here's to many more!

ming said...

A toast to the 'marrige' :) I'm still courting my art, but it's great to know someone who has been there and done that.

CMC said...

I love this. I've been fortunate the past twenty/thirty years to have a roof over my head and my art paying for this passion I have for art/painting. Not a lot, but enough. That's all I need.

Kate said...

Insightful and entertaining... I am sending this link to my husband, who is just starting to get the hang of living with this thing....

Joanne Mattera said...

So, Kate, you're sending it to the other person in your marriage?

Heather Haymart said...

Thank you. Your post was beautiful. I will never think of my relationship with art the same way again.

Bill said...

Beautiful, thoughtful, and compelling.

Steppen Wolf said...

Great to read this piece. Very heartfelt and thoughtful. I soaked up every word and your remarks about Sunday painting are spot on... Wishing you well and the best over the next 35 years and I am sure that the relationship with Mr. Art will stay strong.
Have been a regular here (though lurk most of the time), but after reading this, I had to write back to you.
Good going,

Iggi Art said...

Well, I like your stuff! Brilliant, estrange, of exquisite facture... I’m from South America, my work is some dark and funny (it´s rare mixing) if you have time, please visit my gallery on...

Anonymous said...

Congratulations, Joanne and Art, on your 35 years together. What an inspirational and insightful essay. Thanks for sharing not only your art, but your thoughts and feelings. Beautiful work!