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If Only You Were French, Male and Dead – Joan Mitchell

By Karla Schlaepfer
abstract expressionism, creativity, art, creative confidence, joan mitchell, museum ludwig cologne

What is the connection between creative confidence and artists’ work? Artists have unleashed their creative potential, act upon it, and establish the basis for creative confidence. In our JCP blog, we write about finding and living creative confidence in our lives and at work.  About using creativity as a perspective-changing dynamic. Fact is: we all have it and we can activate it to grow, learn and solve problems. The difference here is that artists use it often as a catalyst to express themselves and make art work of power and beauty. But sometimes conditions for visual artists are far from good. Joan Mitchell is a compelling example of a visual artist who succeeded despite the odds against her– she believed in herself, her painting and achieved remarkable results.

“Gee, Joan, if only you were French and male and dead.”

— New York art dealer to Joan Mitchell in the 1950s

How come some people burn with the light of optimism, while others are easily defeated? Why do some people bounce back from repeated frustrations and others are crushed? These are questions that a group of 3 authors explore in their book on increasing personal strength and  resilience.

In their opinion, there are five factors that secure personal resilience. At the top of the list and the most important is active optimism. This is more than a belief. It is the sure sense that you have the power! You learn from your mistakes and use the knowledge of these experiences to find create solutions that influence and shape your world. This is the kind of positive conviction and creative confidence in yourself that moves you forward again and again.

The American artist Joan Mitchell painted against all the odds and the trends. Early on her success was a total surprise to the established art society who focused at that time on the masculine energy and agony of Jackson Pollock and the gang of New York city 10th Street artist club.  Her early success was striking at a time when very few women artists were recognized as serious painters. Joan was considered tough, disciplined, courageous, dazzling, and went up against the masculine art world at its most entrenched, made her way in it, and disproved the notion that women could not paint or contribute to the advancement of the genre.

Despite the constant struggles, she followed her instinctive sense of artistic purpose, this inner creative calling and actively advanced her career. Even in the ‘60s and ‘70s,  when others considered her abstract expressionism to be out-of-touch and old fashioned, she persisted and continued to develop and deepen her own artistic language  which was inspired by landscape, nature, and poetry. Her artistic intent was not to create a recognizable image, but to convey emotions. We might call her work and life as colored by defiant optimism.

Joan Mitchell was a person who some would call “mentally tough”, this filled her with the light of creative certainty. She set her goals, was willing to put in considerable effort to reach those goals and she felt certain she would win in the face of adversity. This is an example of taking on responsibility for creating the life that she wanted and loved. She pushed forward on many levels and continued to probe and benefit from a kind of creative  life-long resilience. Joan was animated by a growth mindset and positive self-talk which is revealed itself in a  “Yes, I can”  as well as a “F…k them” attitude!

A group of authors, George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed a set of criteria that they see as necessary to develop and live this kind of resilience.

They name these important factors:

  1. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You need courage to make difficult decisions, take small steps forward and this in turn boosts your confidence.
  2. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.
  3. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Be persistent! As comedian Jonathan Winters once said, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, but still know when to quit.
  4. Interpersonal Support. Get the love! Feel acknowledged! Go after your dreams and goals with a partner who really makes you push yourself. Even better, find someone who has already accomplished what you are striving for and have them coach you.
  5. Self-control and discipline
  6. Calm, innovative, non-dogmatic thinking. I’d add creative thinking.

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background. Before you can develop resilience and active optimism, however, you need to know yourself. Discover and act on those things you love and these in turn will empower you.

Karla Schlaepfer

The exhibition Joan Mitchell Retrospective. Her Life and Paintings (14.11. – 21.02.2016) at Museum Ludwig Cologne, Germany.