Tuesday, October 9, 2018

On the Quest for "Mastery" and Being Stuck in a Chair

This week the American Masters Exhibition opens at the Salmagundi Club in NYC, and several of my dear friends are included in the show. I feel both happy for them, and somewhat introspective as I am being nudged to up my own game. Hopefully someday I'll be good enough to be included in a show of this caliber.

I have been following with interest some lively discussions on social media about what it means to be a "master" in one of these prestigious shows. Many of the people involved in the debate are complaining that women are still very much underrepresented in exhibitions like these, while others argue that the art world has made a turn for the better and is no longer just an "old boys club".

I agree that women are still marginalized in many ways, but I also tend to think that no matter who you are, you HAVE to put in the work. Master artist Quang Ho is one of the most amazing, kind, unbiased human beings I know but he will be the first to tell you that not all art or artists are equal. The cream of the crop will rise to the top; it can't help itself. If you are truly doing excellent work, it will be noticed and rewarded. That's why I believe the women, whether old or young, who ARE in the masters show, deserve to be there. They are actually producing work of great excellence and mastery, and to me it doesn't matter that they are women. They are great artists. Of course I am still waiting for a woman to win the top awards in things like the Art Renewal Center and the Portrait Society of America and when that happens, I'll be cheering loudly... But I think each and every work of art needs to be judged by its own merit--that is, whether or not it is excellent in both form and content--long before we look at the gender or skin color of the person who created it. We are on a dangerous slope towards mediocrity if that is all we can focus on. I don’t believe in making excuses, but my own question in regards to the topic of mastery is this: is it possible for someone to become a "master" if they are unable to sketch or paint for hours every day? If they have long periods of life where they simply can't put in the brush mileage? As far as women masters... how many of the ones who somehow manage to make their way into this subjective category, actually have children, or husbands?

That being said, here I sit, wearing a robe and slippers, with a newborn latched to my breast. And while the big ideas and thoughts of both ambition and shame over not being able to paint my best work at the moment swirl around in my head--I look down at the sweet face of my baby boy and realize that he is still the only thing that matters. I think perhaps I’ll start a new a self portrait of the two of us together. Yes, it's another potentially sappy motherhood painting. But it is a picture of my life right now, and will be one of my most honest and authentic creations, as all of my paintings of my children are.

This is real life: endless laundry I can't keep up with, reappearing spots on the carpet, hungry mouths and grocery lists, walking past the studio and looking in but knowing it will have to wait.  Oh, and intentionally spending more time with the dog who, in a passive aggressive response to the newest family member consuming all my time and affection, has begun acting out by peeing in my studio. 

The swanky art openings and conferences, meetings with collectors and dinners with famous artists--these are not the everyday. They are wonderful and special, but only because they contrast so much from the mundaneness of everyday life. Such a strange thing it is to be an artist! To spend hours and hours alone in a studio or inside your own head, and then in an instant, to be thrust out into the world and expected to talk about the intimacies of your work with strangers. It's no wonder so many artists are a little bit crazy. 

When I had my daughter I was in a very different place. I worried that my art career was over and that the title of "master" was surely unattainable now that the next 18 years of my life belonged to her. I wanted to rush ahead and make sure I didn't lose a single moment of both progressing in my art and experiencing motherhood. "Don't worry," I would tell everyone, as though I had something to prove. "I'm finding time to paint whenever I can!"  

Now, seven weeks (already!) after the arrival of my baby boy, I just want time to stand still. I still remember, quite vividly, a moment when I sat in this same chair, four years ago, and the rain was tapping gently on the bedroom window, and I was rocking her to sleep. It was a moment that felt like an eternity, but it is long gone. And here we are now. My boy... well, he is growing up so much faster. He came out looking like a one-month-old, and he already wants to smile and coo and get up and go! What happened to my newborn? 

I know, this is a brain dump, but I'm sure some of you out there can relate. I feel pulled in a million different directions. I’m being told by well meaning artist friends to uproot my foundation and cross a threshold into new and challenging territory in my art, to stop being "Anna Rose Bain" as the public knows me. I’m overwhelmed by this, and keep withdrawing back inward, wondering if this is truly the only way to become a successful artist, or if God has a different path for me. I asked a wise counselor how I might effectively prioritize during my time when life is so unpredictable, and I can't seem to clear the fuzziness from my head (hello... I'm on a newborn's sleep schedule!). She said, "Ask yourself these questions: 'What brings me joy? What brings Him glory? And what am I afraid of?'" That last one is the toughest one. I know what brings me joy, and I know that painting my joy and sharing it with others brings glory to God. But what am I afraid of? Am I afraid to cross that threshold into the creative wilderness? Food for thought...

At least I know this about myself: when I’m not painting regularly I start to feel very insecure. This is the time to show myself some grace. I am frustrated with my dog and the dirty laundry, and the utter lack of time—much less quality time—in the studio, but as a second-time mom, I have been given the gift of perspective. I know how fleeting this is. I know that art is not everything; I refuse to let it be my god. I have a different path, and it is not lesser than anyone else's. Also... whatever it means to be a "master," I've decided that I'm not going to worry about fitting someone else's definition of that. I'm going to do the best work that I can possibly do, at whatever capacity I am capable of each day. That means some days I'll be immersed in my work or "in the zone" (thank goodness for those redemptive days!), while other days I won't make it into the studio at all. And that's okay. :-) 

Below: something I’m playing with in the studio, a big 48x48” canvas that could turn out awesome or end up in the trash. 🤷‍♀️  I’m going to allow myself to be patient and see where it takes me.

Four-year-old Cece during the block-in stage: “Mommy, it’s not pretty yet.” ☺️



  1. Anna Rose. Thank you for this post. It is a frustrating place to be in, wanting to be able to have time for everything at once. Wanting to have time with children, wanting to have the time needed to really devote to painting. While I am beyond the years of nursing sweet babies and long nights with little sleep, there are other demands that make the balance of painting and parenting difficult. My heart yearns to find this correct balance. The balance that God wants me to have but it always feels like so many things pull my attention. Thank you for sharing. It is important as a mom to know others have similar concerns. I know my husband does not feel the same torn guilt of never being able to give undivided attention to everything. We were talking about it last night and he just doesn't feel the same way of being torn in two at all times.

  2. Well, in my book, you already are a master Anna! Your work is wonderful and you've already made a name for yourself. Yes, as mothers, we end up having so many other things going on that our art takes a backseat but it will be a short "break" and you will get back to it with maybe less brush time but experiences that will shine through in your work. I believe you have the ability and dedication to make it to one of those exhibitions, it may take a little longer because of family life but when it does, you will have them cheering for you and there's nothing better than that! Good luck!


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