Working quietly in the corner

In Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, the protagonist studies painting for two years in an atelier school in Paris. At the end of that time, he screws up his courage to ask the master if he actually has talent. The master tells him that his talent is modest; he will never rise above mediocre.

This blow confirms his own self-judgment. He’d noticed that most of his fellow students were also modestly talented or talentless. He realized that it was commonplace to see talent in oneself.

So he gave up painting and returned to London. This episode was another nail in the coffin for me regarding this novel. I’ve already written about the things that bother me about the book.

Many artists reading this will know what rings false about this episode. Rejection and harsh criticism are par for artists. To illustrate with just one incident from my own life. In my school, boys could not take art during junior high, so I was really looking forward to taking art class during Freshman year. One day that Fall, my art teacher, a young woman barely out of college, asked me to stay after class. With dramatic earnestness, she said that I should give up art because I didn’t have any talent.

Did I contemplate following her suggestion? Not for a moment! Instead, I thought, “This is one of those things I’ve read about that happen to artists.” I was only worried about her threat to block me from taking more art classes.

Here’s the bookend to that incident. During my sophomore year we moved from the small school I attended to a really large one. Not long after I started the new school, the art teacher asked me to stay after class. I thought, “Oh no, here we go again.” My new teacher, an elderly man, asked me what I intended to do with my life. I told him, with all the defiance I could muster, that I was going to be an artist. He replied “Good! You’re the most talented student I’ve ever had.” The moral of the story is don’t give up after a single disappointment—don’t give up. If he had echoed what the first teacher said, it wouldn’t have mattered.

Since then I’ve had plenty of ups and downs but these early book-ended incidents ensure that I do not get too high or too cast down.

The important thing is to keep working. Keep working quietly in your studio corner and you’ll progress. No one can stop you but you. If you can make a painting of your beat-up shoes and infuse it with drama and adventure, as did Van Gogh, you have something.

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