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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Self-Taught Artists Emerge after Grueling Hard Work and Physical Pain

"Cafe Costa Rica" 20x20 acrylic on canvas (SOLD), Prints available
As a self-taught artist myself, I wanted to shine a light on the anguish and healing that many of us share in common. I’ve chosen a few artists that are famous and well-known, and a few who never got above the sad circumstances of their lives until long after their deaths.

Many artists were driven to art in the process of mending from a long-term illness or accident. Once they tasted the sweet wine of creation, they found the healing balm of discovery and newness of life. While their minds and hearts were caught up in the rapture of creativity, they forgot about self-pity and pain and unleashed it instead upon paper, wood and canvas. 

My own early beginnings happened after a painful divorce. Remarkable magic occurs when emotions travel from brain and heart through the arm, into the fingers, down the brush and onto a blank surface. Explosions of the mind keep you focused and stayed on what’s happening before your eyes. The smoothness of paint encourages experimentation and afterward, you are never the same.


Frida Kahlo was born in 1907 and died in 1954. In 1922, she entered the National Preparatory School with the intent to study medicine and medical illustration. Three years later, she was in a near-fatal bus accident, which left her with many broken bones, including her legs, ribs, back, and collarbone. While recovering from the accident, she began to paint.

In 1928, she sought out Diego Rivera, a Mexican Rivera, for advice on her works, and would later marry him. Her paintings were surrealist. She used bright colors, and often depicted Mexican folk themes. Her first one-woman art show was in New York in 1938. In 1953, she had her first solo show in Mexico. Her work began to gain more attention in the 1970s, and many of her works are displayed in her former residence. Her bright outdoor scenes and bold self-portraits continue to amuse and delight us.

(Henri Rousseau -- Fight between a tiger and a buffalo)
Henri Rousseau was a post-Impressionist painter who was born in 1844 and died in 1910. He worked for a lawyer and a toll collector to support his mother and wife. It was his job as a toll collector that would earn him the nickname "Le Douanier" (customs office.) Ridiculed during his lifetime by critics, he came to be recognized as a self-taught genius whose works are of high artistic quality.

Rousseau began to paint in his early 40's and would retire at 49 to focus on painting full-time. He taught himself by copying art displayed at the Louvre, but would go on to establish his own style of painting. His paintings are noted for their flat style and great imagination. His most famous works depict jungle scenes, though he never saw a jungle. Several of his paintings are on display at the Louvre.



Winslow Homer was an American landscape artist who was born in 1836 and died in 1910. He was mainly self-taught and spent 20 years as a commercial illustrator before taking up oil painting full-time. He would open his own studio in New York City in 1859 and started to take classes at the National Academy of Design. By this time, he was already producing a great number of works. His early paintings often depict rural farm scenes. Later paintings would display marine subjects, such as fishermen and boating. He would later become best known for his paintings with marine themes.

Riet van Halder is a Dutch housewife who began to draw and paint at the age of fifty-nine after a voice urged her to do so while she was vacuuming the house.” Her family found it strange to see her suddenly become absorbed in painting. In the Netherlands, she had easy access to a vast array of ink, paint, and other media, which she explored in her art. She preferred paint applied with a multitude of implements on a variety of high quality paper and linen. Fittingly, she used a varied color palette. Her paintings are often densely populated with swirling, free form human and animal figures, which have predominately benevolent expressions.

“Her drawings are a response to an imagined world that is revealed, dreamlike, in the act of drawing and painting.” She explained that after finishing a work she was as captured by its beauty and mystery as a first time viewer. In 2004, her ability to create was ended abruptly by chemotherapy, which she received for a melanoma on her ear.

Woodie Long grew up in a family of twelve in a racially mixed sharecropping community in Plant City, Florida. As a young man, he worked as a sharecropper and itinerant laborer. He told me that he had picked just about every crop that existed in the southeastern US. Most of his life, Long was employed as a professional contract painter. This work took him as far as Saudi Arabia, where he met his wife, Dot. Long said that there he became acquainted with the Prince, now King, while painting the Palace and other Royal buildings. Dot and Woodie subsequently traveled for a year in Southeast Asia before they settled in south Alabama to be near family.

Long began his memory paintings in 1988 while recuperating from a respiratory illness brought on by long-term exposure to oil paint. 

He was a great storyteller, and was often encouraged by family and friends to recount his own experiences. He saw his wife’s hobby watercolor set as a good way to record his memories. Long certainly knew how to handle a brush and during his career had experimented occasionally with painting figures. He told me that on jobs, he often created a large image on each wall before painting over it.

Melissa Polhamus was born in Ludwigsburg, Germany. She is the adopted daughter of a U.S. military serviceman and his wife and grew up in several different East Coast military towns. She earned a degree in history from Virginia Polytechnic University. “In 1989, she began to draw from her own imagination while recuperating from depression suffered in the wake of an automobile accident.”



Polhamus is self-taught as an artist. Her undiluted watercolor and ink drawings are characterized by intense, densely fragmented compositions. “She has described the process of creating these works as entirely spontaneous and intuitive.” They have a dreamlike narrative quality in which convoluted environments are typically inhabited by cartoonish clothed figures as they carry out various activities that are alternately mundane, mysterious, or sinister, through a labyrinth of interconnected spaces. “Her drawings often include peculiar vehicles, weaponry, musical instruments, stylized vegetation and jaggedly geometric patterns that contribute to a pervasive sense of anxiety.” They are mysteriously compelling and consistently original in style. From a distance, the palette and patterns of her work may resemble certain Mexican Folk drawings.

Thank you to the following Gallery for providing these bios and paintings: