"Try everything that can be done.
Be deliberate. Be spontaneous.
Be thoughtful and painstaking.
Be abandoned and impulsive
Learn your own possibilities."
George Bellows, 1920
George Bellows’s words are writ large on the wall at the end of the current exhibition of his work at The Royal Academy, London. They appear to be addressed to younger artists, but I reckon the advice remains relevant throughout any creative career.
We don’t know what kind artist Bellows (1882-1925) might have become because his life was cut short. He died aged 42 at a point where his work seemed to be in transition from documentary realism to something more surreal and dreamlike.
His earlier work documents the grittier side of Manhattan as it was transformed into a modern city. Bellows directs his energy and his eye to look slant at the city. A dramatic series records the digging of the foundations for Penn Station – a black hole in the middle of Manhattan two blocks square. These dark scenes are often lit only by the glow of workman’s brazier. Brave stuff to be painting in 1907/9.
He painted the poor of New York - people not normally depicted in works of art - such as his 'Forty-Two Kids' which shows street kids jumping into the East River to cool off.
He certainly lived up to his own advice with his range of subject matter - boxing matches, seascapes in Maine, family portraits, responses to the First World War. He also explored printing as well as painting.
At art college he was a contemporary of Edward Hopper. By the time he died in 1925 he’d left enough evidence to show that he was still ‘learning his own possibilities.’ It’s tantalising to think of the artist he might have become.
Bellows’s words apply equally to writing. Having just spent the last month working ‘deliberately’, ‘painstakingly’ and ‘thoughtfully’ as I prepared my novel manuscript for submission, the quote reminded me that it was time for a period of play and spontaneity!