Portrait of an artist as an old woman: Do what you love
‘At 94, She’s the Hot New Thing in Painting,” The New York Times proclaimed in a big headline last week.
The hot new thing, Carmen Herrera, was born in Cuba in 1915, lives in a loft in lower Manhattan, and began painting before the start of World War II. But she never sold a thing until five years ago when she was 89. She says her husband’s belief in her (he died in 2000) sustained her.
Now, finally, because of talent and perseverance and the stars aligning, she is the art world’s newest (and oldest) darling, her paintings in permanent collections at some of the world’s top museums, and a showing of her art named one of the year’s 10 best (along with a Picasso exhibit) by The Observer, a London newspaper.
Funny how fame works. Herrera’s style hasn’t changed. Her work isn’t any different than it was when no one was buying it. But now she’s being paid $30,000 to $40,000 for some of her paintings, getting high praise from her peers, and good press from a New York Times reporter who described her work as “radiantly ascetic.”
Do what you love. That’s the message here. Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Find one person you trust. And no matter what, do not give up.
It’s an important message to carry into the new year, because New Year’s is fixated on goals and achievements and change, on self improvement and success and being neater and more organized and patient and forcing yourself to do all the things you don’t love, like running a mile, or a half mile, or giving up being an artist for a real job. New Year’s, in our world, is definitely not about hanging in and hanging on, doing a job over and over and making slow progress or no progress at all.
That is not how we roll.
But maybe we should.
At a party honoring Herrera, a fellow painter toasted her late success. “We have a saying in Puerto Rico,” he said. “The bus - la guagua - always comes for those who wait.”
“Well, Tony,” Herrera quipped, “I’ve been at the bus stop for 94 years.”
Most people waiting a fraction of that time would have hailed a cab or caught a train. Been painting for 50-plus years and still no sale? “How’s that working for you?” Dr. Phil would have asked Herrera. Work without reward, without a paycheck or recognition, isn’t something our culture values.
It must have been difficult for Herrera many, many times to listen to her heart and not the world. But she did. She didn’t stop drawing her geometric shapes to conform to the style of the day. She didn’t look around at what was selling and imitate that. She did what she loved and loved what she did, and now the whole world is taking a look. The Observer has called Herrera “The discovery of the decade.”
But if the bus hadn’t come? If Herrera had spent her life in anonymity painting canvases that ended up in the trash? If she had died without having her work affirmed? If the world had never known her, would her life and her work have meant less?
Not to her. She paints because she loves the process. She paints because it brings her joy. “I do it because I have to do it; it’s a compulsion that also gives me pleasure.”
“How can we have missed these beautiful compositions?” The Observer asked. One wonders how many other paintings, manuscripts, sculptures, inventions, songs, and works of art have been missed because the artists didn’t live to be 94.
Canton resident Beverly Beckham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.