To paint, or not to paint?

Michael drew this little picture for me a long time ago, on the back of a store receipt. I keep it in my desk.

Michael drew this little picture for me a long time ago, on the back of a store receipt. I keep it in my desk.

For a long time I considered that Paul Gaugin was a consummate blackguard for leaving his wife and children to go off painting in the tropics. I still think it was a pretty blackguardly thing to have done – only now I don’t judge him so harshly as I used to.

For one thing I am older, more storm-beaten, and humbler than I was. For another, have you ever felt that if only you could get away – to some place of peace, where the wind made the pine trees gently sway in the stillness, that then you could be so good? “If only I had wings like a dove that I might fly away and find rest.”

And I understand likewise the desire to paint and paint.

When I was in college my friend Monika shared with me a piece of advice she had received from her father, which was something like this: “Ask of everything, is this vocation or distraction?”

At that time, I found life so very complex and my vocation so unclear that the advice seemed so simple as to be useless. But now, I love it. I do like to paint, when I can. But whenever I get too busy and frenetic I will stop what I am doing and reassess. Is what I am doing vocation or distraction? If I get too busy to fulfill my vocation – wifehood and motherhood – then I need to jettison the distractions.

I wonder if Gaugin conflated the question “To paint, or not to paint?” with “To be, or not to be?” For someone with artistic genius, the two might at any rate overlap very closely. But, to abandon a vow, is that worth even a thousand paintings of genius?

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