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My. Fellow Institute cooperative broadcasting council president Ben Sean. The painter as creative as a number 7 in the National Association of educational broadcasters series The creative mind used by WGBH Af-Am in Boston under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center. These conversations explore the creative process as it pertains to the American artist and scientist in the 20th century. And here is our host and commentator for the creative mind. Lyman Bryson. We turn now in this series of radio essays on the creative mind to the painters painters have always been thought of as mysterious almost as mysterious as musicians in their genius. The doing of one or two painters who were
highly gifted but happened also to be quite crazy have been exploited by novels and the movies. And I suppose it wouldn't be unnatural for some of you who haven't met many of the breed to suppose that they're very queer people working in a frenzy of excitement. Well no doubt there is excitement in the creative activity of a painter is there is an all creative action. But if you listen to Mr. Shawn and if you think about the way painters work if you study them you'll find that in their work there is this same combination of dedication to hard work the same discipline the same careful learning of technical skills that there is in the work of every other artist. Of course artists have to have inspiration and excitement but of course also they have to know what they're doing. Mr Sean's comment on his own art his own work touches also on another theme that runs through the conversation in the series. If you're born to be a painter you find that you can express your ideas in images better than you can
in any other way. Now Mr. Shawn as it happens can also talk he knows how to use words as he makes abundantly evident and he himself points out that if he has to explain a picture to somebody he can do it but he doesn't think he can really explain the picture. He can only tell somebody who is word minded rather than Image minded something that acts as a kind of clue to understanding he doesn't believe that a picture needs to be explained any more than a musician thinks a piece of music needs to be explained. Or a poet thinks that you have to add footnotes to explain a poem. These things might have titles perhaps as hints but actually a work of art is an attempt to say in that special form what it was that the artist had on his mind and on his heart. One way to understand any artist is to look at the words he uses for acceptance or approval. A Master Sean doesn't talk about a painting being true might be interesting to know what uses he would make of that subtle and dangerous word
true. We know what a scientist means when he says something untrue is true we know that he means it can be verified by sensory tests. Mr Sean in his conversation with Nigel Eisenberg uses the word valid. The painting is valid for a painter if it he really says an image is what he wants to say what he really gets out of his experience. It's valid for the viewer if he is the right way or if it gets the message that is intended for him or at least a part of it. In both cases the test is honesty. The plastic work of art the painting the drawing whatever it is is valid for the maker if he's honest with himself and it's valid for the viewer. If he can honestly response to it one point comes out in the talk between Mr Sean and Nigel Eisenberg. It's of great interest to a culture like ours and it's already been touched on by some of our other guests. As we said before our universities have become our chief patrons. Our universities have
taken the place of what in the Middle Ages were the churches and what at later times were private patrons princes and bankers and people of great wealth and position. The universities are providing jobs for artists and in return for being given a chance to work in a place to work and a living. The artist teaches and of course the artists in the great days of the Middle Ages in the Renaissance also taught sorry in his accounts of the lives of the artists and actually talks about their pupils quite as much as he does about anything else. That's a little different in those days. The paper was an apprentice. He went into the studio he ground the colors he swept out the shop. He moved the props around and occasionally might be allowed to paint something in a corner or fill in a figure just as we remember Leonardo painted a little spot on a canvas of his master for Akio and everybody from that time on knew that Leonardo could scarcely be called an apprentice. But this isn't what the painter in the university is up against.
The painter in the university has a large number of eager young people who want very much to know how an artist works who want to understand art. Let me even have talent. They may even have a great deal of talent and a very important potential artist. Nevertheless the painter meets them in massive routines. He meets them in classes. They answer Belle's they meet in a classroom more or less even in studio it's arranged like a classroom. This isn't what Leonardo was doing when he was in the studio for Akio. And it may have an effect upon a painter which is shall we say repressive which is constraining at any rate. Some people suspect that it might be now more and more gifted men are accepting this kind of patronage because it is the typical unavailable patronage age. But their opinions about it are very important because there might be doubts Mr. Shawn has doubts that Mrs. Eisenberg asked him what role in a society like ours
painters should play. First I was very new particular creation has a source. It is only the fact that certain fragments of society. Now or other expression have affected another fragment of society. So that. The artist can effect a fragment and it would be a very small fragment measuring a hotel of say if you take some of the intensity that he himself has felt in the creation. I think that's all to the good. Now of course there's a terrible hangover and echoing from what goes on in our world today and the most important thing is going on with science and science are basically quantitative and we begin to use subjugators when we enter the area of the spirit and I don't think those gauges are
valid in that area. I know speaking personally for a moment I know that I have affected certain people or certain groups of people but measured against our society Well it's. Others have affected more. I'm not going to say that one or the other piece of work is better. Others have affected less. When I look at the work of art or a novel or a poem or a piece of music. I'm afraid I evaluated by my values only and if it does affect me to the good and of a dozen moves millions of others and doesn't move me it is too bad for me it's very good. Ten million do you think that art can lead. I think great techniques can be taught. I think that the actual definition of art which we have to go into I
don't believe it can be taught but art eventually is an experience and a series of experiences. On certain individuals and given a certain amount of talent certain amount of ability the output will be the result of all those experiences so that the teaching really might get in the philosophy department would sometimes be intimately more important than direct teaching that he would get in the art class. But it can't be taught up to par and it must be taught. For this a simple reason being together of a group of young people have a stimulating effect on each other and that is a terribly important thing at that particular stage of development. And sometimes Lee uttered criticism by a work
painter beside you can be infinitely more effective than having a teacher in tell you and there's a constant presence of other mentalities other talents. That is probably the best thing that comes out of teaching. Did you choose paint from the beginning I wondered whether in the selection of a channel of expression for the artist whether he was potentially an artist in other areas and narrows down the selection for expression. Well the first thing I can remember. And it's an almost frightening memory I drew and it was natural that as soon as I could have access to any coloring material I colored whether it was crayon or water colors. Now when I was a youngster of say 12 I looked upon oil painting as the very highest thing in the bag for oil paints. But with experience I revaluate of all those things but no I did think of myself as an artist.
When you start painting getting down to the specific you now do you have a conception of the whole in your mind. No I don't. You start with an image or an idea. Well I'm naturally more inclined to work with images and I keep notes and the notes are filled after the images and I have in single words a kind of shorthand image words if you wish but I certainly do not have a complete image because if I had. Complete image. I think I would lose my interest in the area of discovery in the area of exploration that exists and then for me is to me the most intriguing most rewarding one actually that the painting gives back to restart. That's right this is very important. And again to go back a question a moment if I had this complete image that you speak of
the total picture I would be inclined to exercise a complete control over it. And some of the greatest mistakes I have made in my own work was in exercising complete control. I don't want to sound metaphysical but I was period during the painting when the painting itself makes certain demands you see and if you are not hypersensitive to it you know you will lose a good part of your painting. It becomes a living thing and it definitely becomes a living thing. Do you go through certain stages in your work that are generally the same. I think you start with the drawings first. More or less Now I have something on the table. I started first just to make a casual drawing as a record for myself because I thought some time I would use that I have an enormous collection of things it's my
vocabulary my dictionary my everything. Now when I was just about half way through this thing I changed my mind about merely making a record of a particular instrument that I want to do something more than that. And now it's gone something I didn't conceive Atar again do you have any external habits that age you in the creative process any types of work discipline or crutches such as coffee. Do you have to create in a certain room or at a certain time of the day. Not particularly. I suppose one of crutches when you're crotchety I guess and they get used to his own particular table and so on and I was a little worried coming up here coming to a fresh studio whether I'd be able to work and how long it would take and I was rather pleasantly surprised that within less than a week I was
in and I must confess I spent a couple of days covering to what a writer does by creating his typewriter somewhere. But finally it was it was my environment and here I was now. Another crowd that I speak you mentioned that I'd like to speak of as this effort I don't knowit call the crutch of trying to see the things that I do think of the relationship of things as if they had never existed before in my experience if I can get into that relationship with my work then it is going alright you see. But if I don't have that particular sense of order and wonder about it then it isn't going very well. Are these images that you think of essentially paint him as a composer we think of tonal images.
Well only in the sense that element the most elementary image is there but not necessarily in terms of paint images. Stake my images beyond the one I have in mind on a sheet of paper and there are very elementary images and occasionally I will rummage through those drawings and a drawing that I had been looking at for say two years each time sort of pushing aside. It wasn't worthy of any further development. Suddenly this drawing takes on a significance in which to grow in my mind as paint images actually. And then I am very excited about that thing and wonder why I hadn't seen it that way two years before. But again this is the experience we all go through with it when we read a book or poem that has no meaning for us. And two years later that same
book the same poem has a great year significance for us. Do you think that the invitation of other artists is a necessary preamble to the development of style. I wish the words were defined for me and I'm going to ask you to do it and I think people write here very scholarly people in trying to define style and I haven't. That is meaningful but is it necessary for the young painter to go through a period of imitation. I would say yes you know the very first impulse of painting is imitation down to the cave paintings in alchemy or the skull caves and so on. Those were imitations of the animals that they were engaged with every day. So the very very first impulse of a child is to imitate and that's where the last during his student days and
sometimes as they present other individuals ever said. Sometimes it does a little earlier sometimes a leader. But apparently that period of imitation or influence is an inevitable one. Do you find that there's a particular point that you sort of as an entree to the painting of a detail or a look into it. Oh very definitely. I sort of sense the painting for the first couple of days. Shadowboxer what have you leaving for that kind of opening and I'm very alert to that particular time and it goes off in the various directions actually. But whatever it is that makes me recognize that. Opening as it were when it comes along I begin to get pretty clear what I'm going to go be more struggles with it you know. But by and large I know where I'm going when very recently some students
asked me whether they could watch me paint. And I said no and I said well they had talked earlier with their affection for Archibald MacLeish and his methods of teaching etc.. I said would you ask him whether you could stand over his shoulder while he said aloud why he chooses where and whether it's for its tonal quality whether it's for its measure whether for its meaning. And that to me painting as as a still a very intimate and highly private thing while I'm doing it and that's a further if I knew how to make the next painting you'd be welcome but I don't. No I'm going to make the next day so there will be ex post facto or rationale that I would give you. I wouldn't let you watch it or actually explain it. How could I possibly remember a thousand decisions that went into it. So I was sorry but I had to say no to them. So in
answer to your question whether I have a method I must pass over your opinion seem to resemble each other in the style if you wish or quality or whatever it is. But each one is still a big area of discovery and therefore it is repetitious as sometimes as a happy and unhappy with. Do you have simultaneous ideas that enable you to work on many things at the same time or you're so involved with one painting at a time trying to get that one out of your system already under able to work on more than one thing. TIME This is a just a strictly personal thing I've seen an artist very high reputation when I lived in France he was working from the mall and he had 60s or stood up around there and he just went one got away to go to the next one one of the reasons I abandon all of the slow drying and I just couldn't pick up anything else so that I am
utterly incapable of working on more than one painting of a cat. I'm rather single tracked anyway so that even when I begin to work on something else that has nothing to do with painting the hobby or the way I find I do nothing but that hardly you know whether I do a lot of cabinet work or I make frames Well I save crazy making for a week of framing I do nothing else or so I just I'm unable to do more than one thing at a time it's as soon as I feel a great hindrance actually. And but here's something every one painting often generates another idea. And sometimes when I'm high or way through I am already thinking simultaneously as I'm working. That's when I have passed three of the bridges that were there. Moment I am already thinking of the next one.
This brings us to another point which is the satisfaction that you feel upon the completion of the painting is it a compromise when you've been through it because of the necessary selection among many possibilities. Well naturally you feel that nobody ever comes after what you plan on offering to admit but it is so. But there are times I stand in awe of it myself. I am the first thing is first I like very much Anderson look at it because I begin to feel then the outsider and the onlooker will actually admire a great deal. Tendency does this usually take a while to occur for you to be able to detach yourself from it. No no I generally leave a painting is finished about four or five times you know when it's actually finished and the cause a week of rather pleasurable activity.
You're just going to the final thing which you know is not going to affect the whole picture at all whether that is fine and is good or bad isn't going to make a difference that total is very safe. But that's the pure pleasure of craftsmanship you see and when you're never the next day you'll pick it up again and find something else. And when you couldn't get anything it's finished and you look at it again. But those are minor things that really indulgence or self-indulgence or the pleasure of doing it. Then there comes a point when you feel well there's nothing more I can do to any more of those refinements might actually change the character other than you say well just let it oversee video talk myself and it's finished well then I can't begin on the picture that remains in my studio. Then there was a period of drawing or other minor things of some watercolors and so on and then I just had to get out of my studio
to my dealer you know and if there's one present Actually I can work on another one. I mean it's a major work that I've been engaged in. Do you have carried practice in your career where you feel that you and I do feel a little need be not desired to know or know are they having this sort of wrong and soul with me of coming into the studio that I am restless when I'm not there you see now what takes place in a studio can be something like this is that working. But I'm here and I can come in here and have something I want to read out the slip my apron on and read I feel it with these without actually restless without their brain I have to do a thing for a magazine when I was over the room. And I missed of all things I missed as a part of my life. I had taken longer than 10 to do no work. But then I
consciously gave myself a vacation I had 25 years to start and want to join anything you want to go to museums around my teacher and see people. Different people. Do you feel that painting itself is a limiting medium that you can express everything you want to say in this medium or are there times when you feel that you've got ideas but you're frustrated by the very Baldridge of painting and. Painting can become. And has become for me a way of life. So that. Inevitably I probably can express. Most anything I feel. Better in that medium than in any other medium. And it would be equally true for any one engaged in this field or of the field. Because there are times when I wish I could sing I can't.
There are times when I wish I could write and I can. But often I have started to write something and abandoned it because of the insurmountable difficulties and found found I could say what I wanted to say. Much more effectively in a drawing or a painting. It is a way of life. That is sometimes hard to make people understand I am consulted constantly about. By students here of painting as a career. And they think of it in terms of. A livelihood. Or in terms of a profession. And I try to tell them my feelings about painting. So that covers every experience of a human being can have. And consequently And to answer your question directly. I have not felt that there
is any other medium that I could use more effectively. To express what I want to say or what I feel about the world around me or my own inner world in any other medium other than the one I feel most at ease with. This is the I am. I'm afraid so. I was once. Asked that question about the sort of totality of painting in relation to my life. And I said you know I'd hate to be caught with a paintbrush only in my hand. But. The letter was clearly misunderstood. And what I meant was that I want to live as for life as any other individual does. But. Every. Ultimate expression of that life does somehow end up in one form or another that is strictly a visual expression.
Of friends. When I was much younger held out the danger of a painter. Being married. The danger of the painter having a family of those which would be hindrances or millstones as they called it. But I found that if one looks at. Painting. As a. Total expression of one's life as opposed to look at poetry as a musician might look at music. To. Actually remove oneself from any part of life would be to impoverish the final. Expression. The creative process that is more than the transmission onto the canvas it's the total accumulation of the individual. It is absolutely valid and it is amazing now as I get older to see how every facet of one's experience. At one way or another finds its way into one's work. It is inevitable
Creative mind
The painter as creator
Producing Organization
WGBH Educational Foundation
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University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
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Episode Description
This program features Ben Shahn speaking on painting and creativity.
Other Description
This series, hosted by Lyman Bryson, presents radio essays about the creative process for the American artist and scientist in the 20th century.
Broadcast Date
Fine Arts
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Guest: Shahn, Ben, 1898-1969
Host: Bryson, Lyman, 1888-1959
Producer: Summerfield, Jack D.
Producing Organization: WGBH Educational Foundation
AAPB Contributor Holdings
University of Maryland
Identifier: 58-44-7 (National Association of Educational Broadcasters)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
Duration: 00:29:17
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Chicago: “Creative mind; The painter as creator,” 1964-04-23, University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 21, 2021,
MLA: “Creative mind; The painter as creator.” 1964-04-23. University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 21, 2021. <>.
APA: Creative mind; The painter as creator. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from