The creative life is often a solitary one, focused on a singular vision, though there’s a bond that unites most people who create for a living. Years ago, actor friends in Hollywood referred to everyone not in that business as “the citizens,” as if no one outside it could ever understand. As a writer, I appreciate this. Even one of my best friends often says to me, “You must be thinking about sex all the time. Your novels are full of it.”
I say to her, “Those are the characters talking, not me. Can’t you get that novelists create characters who speak for themselves, not the author?”
She cocks her head and says, “I ain’t buying it.”
A good many of you are interested in the world of creativity. You want to write, paint, sculpt or act, or you may already be in one of these professions. I thought I would tell some tales about creativity, focusing on two special artists, in my life in various ways.
I have had a painter friend named Andrew Stevovich for many years. We met when I bought one of his paintings in 1974, a few years after he graduated from Rhode Island School of Design. But his interest in art had started much earlier. “I was drawing in crayon on my parents’ wallpaper when I was 3,” he says. “I believe that you can show signs of passion at a very early age. Then you have to be lucky to have someone older recognize the passion.”
In these days of zero attention span, it seems tougher than ever to find mentors. Stevovich was lucky. A teacher at his high school in Washington, D.C., inspired him. “He used to tell me, ‘If this painting were mine, I’d…’ and he’d gently nudge me with encouragement into seeing things I hadn’t seen before in my paintings,” Stevovich recalls. “He collected songbirds. They sang in our painting classes, along with Mozart records.”
Another mentor immersed him in color, and he fell in love with classical style and the Quattrocento; his artist heroes were Giotto, Whistler, Gauguin, Botticelli. He spent hundreds of hours at the National Gallery, not believing that humans today could paint as wondrously as the artists he worshipped. But he drew inspiration from them, while striving to find his own way. “I’d never show anyone any work in progress, only the finished product, and I swore early I’d never take a commission,” he says. “I’d only do what pleased me.”
I first encountered his work at his debut solo show, at the Alpha Gallery on Newbury Street. My wife and I wandered in on a Saturday, and his vibrant colors jumped off the canvas at me. I couldn’t believe what I saw on the walls.
I love the drawings of Daumier, the paintings of Bosch, artists who understand the absurdity of life and the foibles of human nature. Stevovich was in his 20s, and he painted satirically in oil. I was so excited to find someone so young who could reflect irony on canvas. One large painting showed a man and a woman in a laundromat, both in formal clothes, staring out at us. She’s in a low-cut gown; he’s in a dinner jacket, reading from the Social Register. It cost $1,000, and I couldn’t afford it. But I had to have it, and the owner said I could take a year to pay it off. I was naive about the concept of paying something off over time. Now that’s how college costs are treated, and I hope that expensive experience gives you as much pleasure as my Stevovich Laundromat painting.
Now I’ve known Stevovich for 40 years. He’s represented by Adelson Galleries, with a location in New York and a shining space in the South End. His colors are more vibrant than ever, his paintings still satirical and full of whimsy, his characters all around us: in subways and in casinos, in cafes talking on cellphones, in their rooms alone. His final advice to the young? “Don’t listen to other people. I use 500-year-old technology in my paintings. But I try to reflect today.”
Katherine Houston is a ceramist, a brilliant creator of special porcelain sculptures. And, like Stevovich, she honors the past. Houston is her professional nom de plume. “Part of my everyday world sees me as a mother of four, keeper of the house. I took a pseudonym to get me away from me,” she explains. An art history major in college, Houston drew and painted, then gave it up for years, until she and her husband rented a flat in London. One day, she noticed some porcelain pieces in a store window. She loved the colors and the delicacy of the work and thought they were surely Chinese exports or Meissen or Sèvres, the finest of that craft. The shopkeeper told Houston, “No, they’re done by a lady in Pangbourne about an hour away.”
“This was my ‘eureka’ moment,” she says. “Both my grandmothers had porcelain, one from China, the other from France. I used to play by a river when I was little, molding with river clay, all alone, lost in little girl thoughts.” The artist in Pangbourne was a true Lady, the Marchioness of Aberdeen. She invited Houston and her husband to dinner and became her mentor. “No mucking about. There is no convenient time to go to work,” she told Houston. “Just do it.”
And Houston did. She concentrated on 18th-century paintings of fruits and vegetables and began to create gorgeous pieces in three dimensions, working with as many as 300 different colors. She uses 12 to 14 applications of low-fire overglaze, whereas commercial porcelains only use one or two. The result: richly colored works that look like Dutch Master still-life paintings, only in 3-D, brilliant from every angle. And they never fade. Her flowers and vegetables sit on mantels and serve as centerpieces; they can be found in private collections, museums like the Peabody Essex and stores like Gump’s, Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.
“There are penalties for the creatives among us,” Houston says. “I love the pressure of difficult projects, but there’s a price for it. I’ve had four surgeries on my shoulder. But the joys of creating beauty allow me to lose myself in my art.” Stevovich would say the same about his painting, about the lonely life, in which you never really know who will appreciate your work.
“Luck,” Houston quotes, “is when perseverance meets opportunity.”
That’s what all of you with creative dreams should understand.