There Are No Mwuahaha Villains in the Artistic Life

You know that if two artists are married, only one is going to be successful. And in your family, it’s going to be [your husband]. So why don’t you just understand that and look after the house and the kids?*

If these words were directed at you, would you give up? What if they came from someone you trusted, someone who knew your capabilities versus your spouse’s because he was your collective teacher and faculty adviser? What if you were a budding visual artist and he a world-renowned painter?

How would you react?

I’m certain I would go through periods of rage, helplessness, and despair before slogging my way back to the work. (At least I’d like to think I’d persist, and that my solution wouldn’t mean I’d be wearing an orange jumpsuit to all future writing sessions. Because seriously, that level of outright favoritism and sexism? Grrrrrrr!)

As I learned in her wide-ranging interview with Michael Enright, the artist in question — Canadian painter Mary Pratt — did just that. She went on to have a fifty-year career that would be a considered a success by all objective standards. Internationally, Ms. Pratt is known for her study of light on everyday objects in the style of still life photo-realism. Canada granted her the highest award it provides to its citizens, making her a Companion of the Order of Canada. Two of her paintings have been featured on Canadian stamps.

What’s more, this was hardly the last time she’d surmount the forces of anti-career antagonism. Because her remarkable life and career hold a number of powerful lessons that apply to fiction, I thought to share them here today.

Visual artists are as quirky as prose-writers.

When caught in the state of “flow”, where time disappears and all that matters is the creative task before us, artists can have an hilarious view of life. No doubt your families have commented on the times you live in your head or how one writing hour turns into five.

In Pratt’s case, she was fascinated with the qualities of light on reflective surfaces. She would place an everyday object, such as a fish, on a background of saran wrap or tinfoil, then take a photograph and work to recapture the image in paint. So complete was her absorption in the task that she’d often finish a painting without realizing it contained her own reflection.

One night, after a intense and productive session, she told her husband, Christopher Pratt, “You know, there’s this amazing color between red and blue and it makes the most wonderful color. It’s sort of a bridging color.”

Her husband’s response: “We’ve been calling that purple for a long time.”†

Limitations can shape an artist’s voice or style, become creative fuel.

Pratt showed both an early interest in visual arts and talent. She was ten when she won an international painting exhibit for children, judged in Luxembourg. Then came the day when her parents discovered she was myopic and wanted to get her glasses. Pratt resisted. She’d fallen in love with her near-sightedness and the objects she could see clearly within that visual field.

Later on, that orientation would serve her well. She and Christopher had four children together. Because they’d fallen into stereotypical gender roles for the time, Christopher ranged outside the home, capturing images of the Canadian landscape which he’d go on to paint in his studio. Meanwhile, Mary spent her days handling childcare and the tasks of domesticity. But she was determined to work and so her subjects became that which was available to her: jelly jars, apples, a table set for breakfast.

As for her lack of a studio, rather than give into self-pity, Pratt simply learned to move her easel around the house. She said, “Usually people who make a big fuss don’t do too much.”

Duality rules. There are no mwuahaha antagonists in the writing life, nor knights on white chargers.

If there is one lesson I took from the interviews and blog posts I read about Mary Pratt, this would be it, for time and again, the people who supported her artistic life at one moment would detract from it in another, and vice versa. If Pratt were to have a career, it became clear she’d somehow have to set a course that could navigate these changing polarities.

For instance, while Pratt’s parents always supported her artistic studies, they also stressed the importance of a career that served others. (Pratt’s father was a Member of Parliament and a Minister of Justice for New Brunswick.) So at age eighteen, as Pratt looked to settle on a vocation, she told her father she wouldn’t become an artist. The choice was “too selfish.” His response was to tell her it would be selfish of her not to develop her gifts.

In her interview at Canadian Art, Mary gave the following quotation:

‘You have a talent and it is a requirement of you to paint,’ he told me. ‘It is your fate — you’re going to have to study art.’

Yet there came a time when her parents joined the newspapers in becoming her most vocal critics.

Pratt was intoxicated by the properties of light, which meant that she always raced the clock in an effort to capture her subject before it had degraded beyond measure. Then came the day when she realized she could freeze time by painting from a photograph. For her, this meant freedom of the career-changing variety; to her parents and the community of critics, it meant she had sold out.

I’ve always felt that of all the things I learned at art school, that moment was probably the most important.

For some time, paralyzed by self-doubt, Pratt stopped painting altogether. She took up stitchery.

Who should be the one to take the first photographs of the tableaux she wished to capture, and who talked her into resuming her career, painting from said photos? None other than the person whose career and talent took priority in the household — her husband.

As for the teacher I referred to in the opening quote, Lawren P. Harris, in an interview with Canadian Art, Pratt reported she bore him no ill will.

‘It was a wonderful thing for him to say to me because I realized absolutely my position at that point.’ Harris’s words triggered Pratt’s fierce contrariness, forging her resolve to carry on painting. ‘I’ve always felt that of all the things I learned at art school, that moment was probably the most important.’

There was meaning and purpose behind her painting.

Though she didn’t make the link explicitly, I can’t help but believe this next quotation explains a good deal of Pratt’s resilience. It somehow feels right, too, that she found her way full circle to making her artistic career an act of personal service. When asked what emotion Pratt would like to invoke in her audience, this was her response:

I’d want them to feel that they’d been in a room with work that had been done with some kind of charge, some kind of love, and that they could come away knowing that it was okay to love stuff like that, it was okay to love pomegranates on a tinfoil… Because I don’t know that people allow themselves to love what is around them. Sometimes they resent it because it they’ve got to either cut it or serve it on a platter. And for some people, you know, it’s all the life they have, so it’s okay to love that small life.

Now over to you, Unboxeders. Do you have any non-literary heroes who have taught you about the writing life? What about stories of alchemy — moments when what seemed like limitations to your writing became embedded virtues in your voice, a call to artistic excellence rather than cause for your defeat?

*The adviser in this quotation was one Lawren P. Harris, Director of Mount Allison University, where Pratt and her husband studied Fine Arts. Quotation derived from Mary Pratt’s interview with Canadian Art.
Christopher Pratt went on to become famous in his own right. He and Mary reportedly separated in 1990.


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. Deb says

    Hi Jan, and thanks for this interesting post!

    I want to put a plug in here for Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, who taught me by example what it means to persist. Reading Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, quite literally changed my life. His call to adventure was Antarctica. Mine is writing. If ever I even think about giving up, I only have to think about Shackleton–and persist.

    • says

      I love the idea of writing as a call to adventure, and that you’d evoke the idea of great explorers when you think of the artistic life. Now you have me curious; do you write action-adventure, perchance?

  2. says

    I’ve spent much of my life defining myself as a painter who writes. Having flipped that over in the past decade, I have found that the same challenges exist for me as a writer as they did for me as a painter. Finding the time, rallying the courage to persist. I got very covetous of my time and resentful of anything that chipped into it. Then I met a man who taught Tracking and Awareness courses, and he told me that the deer are swift and graceful because of the predators who chase them. That one simple thing helped me shift my perspective. I can’t say that I welcome adversity, but I see it now as grist for the mill, which is something.

    • says

      “…the deer are swift and graceful because of the predators who chase them.”

      Now that’s a powerful metaphor, Susan, and would seem to build gratitude into the perception of opposition. What a wise man.

  3. says

    Wonderful story. And just imagine, if Mary Pratt hadn’t stayed home with her children, perhaps she would have missed showing us the beauty in the ordinary jelly jars. She’s a woman to admire. I know several artist couples and it is lovely to see them support one another fully.

    Non literary heroes: Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, Fr. Damien, A. J. Cronin (he later became a writer, but first he was a physician). All these incredible people taught me (still teaching me) about loving the work you do, loving the people you do it with. Even the smallest poem can be a great act of love.

    • says

      “Even the smallest poem can be a great act of love.”

      How beautiful, Vijaya.

      Yes, I can’t help but wonder how different Mary Pratt’s voice might have been without her myopia and her decision to stay home. (Even given the social milieu at the time, I can’t help but believe it was a choice; this is Canada, after all.) What might we have lost? Impossible to know, of course, but it’s an interesting exercise.

      Also, as she matured and experienced significant loss, her subjects became darker–eviscerated chicken, for instance. When critics look at the body of her work, some say even her early, seemingly innocent paintings dealt with large themes: sexual violence, death, and the sacraments.

  4. says

    *Do you have any non-literary heroes who have taught you about the writing life?*

    I have a range of heroes, from Sir Isaac Newton (a brilliant mind who was also renowned as an alchemist!) – to Maya Angelou (I know she is a famous writer, but her autobiographical book ‘I know why the caged bird sings’ was one of the first books I studied at secondary school).

  5. says

    Such a thought-provoking piece, Jan — thanks for sharing.

    I’ve always been partial to Julie Krone, an early female jockey. Legend has it that when she got to the racetrack for the first time, it was closed and locked — so she simply climbed over the fence. My kind of woman.

  6. says

    I have so many examples in my life, because my own career overlaps so many types of artists. There are the theatre directors who create incredible shows even though they were told they would never succeed. There is my artist friend, Jackie Haltom, who taught me to express myself and my creativity regardless what other people say or do. I am still learning this from so many people.

    However, I do think there are a few “muahaha antagonists” out there. The ones who destroy you to make their own work seem more valuable.

    • says

      First, it’s wonderful that you are surrounded with so much support. If loneliness and happiness are contagious, I’m certain that would hold true for creativity and the risk-taking inherent to it.

      As for the idea of a true villain, to the best of my research, Ms. Pratt didn’t mention any oppositional forces she hadn’t been able to overcome except that she’s aging. She’s finding it difficult to physically execute the tasks of painting yet must, because it’s her income.

      If you knew people were motivated to destroy your career because they were, deep in their hearts, afraid, would you still view them as a mwuahaha villain? I ask because I’m (perhaps) overly empathic. Right away that would remove some of the sting of their actions even as I worked to protect my work and my career.

  7. says

    I flunked English in my senior year of high school. I thought I knew more than the teacher, and it was years before I actually did, but it was highly motivating.

    Twenty published books later I’m glad I flunked.

    As to artists in other disciplines, oh my, there’s so much to learn from them. Visual artists see the world with fresh eyes, actors inhabit characters, dancers elevate movement to art, jazz reveals the structure beneath improvisation. So much has stuck with me.

    Here’s one: The unique R&B and soul artist Janelle Monae draws from many influences from Debussy to Philip K. Dick. Her “Metropolis” records were inspired by the Fritz Lang movie of the same title. She’s completely different and has made that a strength. Her working uniform is a tuxedo. She dates only “androids”. She’s other, and her music is what we would call cross-genre.

    Janelle Monae also has said that she is privileged to perform and owes her audience 100% every time she gets on stage. I like that. I try to bring that spirit to the keyboard and to my workshops.

    Art is in jelly jars and in combining elements in ways we never imagined. Thanks for reminding us that we can look not only to other writers but to other artists.

    • says

      You flunked English in your senior year, Don? Forgive me for laughing. I just had an image of a much younger you, still in your skinny jeans with a hank of dark hair in your eyes, taking on the teacher as your baffled classmates gasp. Good training for being an agent, yes? ;)

      But back to your point. It would seem the commonality in your two examples are commitment–an attribute I highly admire. “Go big or go home”? Sounds like what you teach us here every month.

  8. says

    As an artist and a writer, I found Pratt’s story very inspiring.

    And though most of the artists and writer I know don’t have Mary’s recognizable success, at least beyond a tight local area, both the male and female creative people I know, including myself, have experienced about the same kinds of resistance.

    Almost always, the woman is expected to stay home and care for children, and the man is expected to go out and work at whatever to provide financial support.

    I suppose, half a century or century ago, this division meant the ability to survive. It did for us. I only really knew working class people growing up.

    So I can see, and know, how different it is for my nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons. And though it’s obvious there’s so much more to aim for, both in terms of gender and socio-economic opportunities, I also see the incredible progress.

    Mary’s is typical of an artist’s perceptions and experiences, so she is even more inspirational because of that.

    And art, writing or painting or music etc, is not a zero sum game, like the stock market. There’s room for us all. Where ever we may fit, and where ever we may find we’re able to share and find that okay-ness, that love.

    Very nice article, thanks so much Jan.

    • says

      I’m learning there are many visual artist-writers in WU’s readership this morning, Felipe. Who knew? And how wonderful. I’m glad this was able to speak to both parts of your creativity.

      As for this, how true and optimistic of you: “And art, writing or painting or music etc, is not a zero sum game, like the stock market. There’s room for us all.”

  9. says

    Powerful piece with lots to ponder today. Thanks for that, Boss.

    I loved it all, and Pratt’s work really speaks to me. I love that last bit about hoping people come away knowing it’s okay to love the little things. She’s talking about a special communion between the heart of an artist and the heart of her audience. That reminds me of one of my non-literary artist heroes–well, two heroes, actually. I’m really inspired by the art rock duo Dead Can Dance (aka Brendan Perry and Lisa Gerrard).

    This Lisa Gerrard quote is longish, but I’ve always loved it, and it speaks to that longing to connect, both for the artist and for those experiencing it. “[An artist is] someone communicating to you who is not your friend, or neighbor, or mother. They peel back the membrane of superficiality or mediocrity so that you can connect with it, and you can become a member of the human race. The connection says, “You have a right to be here.” You are not being patronized. I think that’s what God wants us to do. It isn’t necessarily about how we speak, or whether we look glamorous. It’s about seeking an essence that is sincere. When an artist makes something with sincerity, and is willing to make this journey while facing up to the horrible reality of their limitations and still manages to do this work, that becomes a safe place for others to come to and build from there.” ~Lisa Gerrard

    I particularly love being “willing to make the journey while facing up to the horrible reality of our limitations.” Here’s to willingness and sincerity, and the resulting connectivity! Thanks again, Jan!

    • says

      Great quote, V, and I picked out the same bit you did as being particularly resonant. Thank you for that.

      As for the followup–the bit about safety–that’s my experience, too, and the primary reason I’d give for WU’s gestalt. Vulnerability, truth, and moderation which keeps them from being exploited. That’s what WU is to me.

  10. Carmel says

    Norman Rockwell, because he so charmingly portrayed the good side of people, and because he kept on despite the adversity in his life.

    • says

      I’m sorry to say that, while I was charmed by Mr. Rockwell’s work, I know little of his personal life or artistic challenges. His work is so optimistic and competent, I never would have guessed that he struggled. Not fair of me and now I’m sorry for my lack of curiosity. Thanks for the prod, Carmel.

  11. says

    Wow, I really appreciate the research and thought that went into this post! I don’t know that I’ve ever intentionally taken a non-writing inspiration and applied it to my writing life, but of course I’ve been inspired by all sorts of people in all sorts of fields. I really, really love that quote from Pratt’s husband in response to the “bridge” between red and blue. Funny, but also quite telling about a creative’s process — how we sometimes come upon old things in new ways and feel we understand them much more fully. Lots of food for thought here!

    • says

      This post was serendipitous, Annie. My son was on a band trip and I was stuck in the car for a good hour, waiting for his bus to arrive. I had the radio tuned to CBC–our version of NPR, always good for making you think–and I was hooked by the interview’s opening and her candor. I could see how applicable her thoughts were to writing and messaged myself her name so I could look her up. By that time I’d developed a bit of a crush.

      That line about the purple cracked me up. She told that story so well. :)

  12. says

    A lovely read on a Monday morning! I was hooked all the way through by your storytelling ability… I am fascinated by people like Pratt who can find beauty in everyday, “boring” things – I’ve been trying to do just that in my writing lately. There is a story in everything if we take the time to see it… Thanks for the inspiration kickstart!

    • says

      We live in a noisy, materialistic world where it often seems the predominant word is “more”. I find her core idea of service a welcome antidote. Sounds like you do, too. Will be interesting to see how that plays out in your writing.

  13. says

    Love this article, Jan, thank you.

    I wrote an article for WU back in 2006 (!) about Literary Illusionism, pointing to Julian Beever of sidewalk art fame. The 3D illusions he creates are a lot like what we writers hope to do–pull others down the rabbit holes of our choosing.

    We can learn a lot from barriers–about our own ambitions and determination, but also how to navigate them. Climb them, move around them, or blow through them to reveal the ether that they are.

  14. says

    I love this, Jan, and not only because it’s by a fellow Canadian, about a fellow Canadian.

    I’ve not thought specifically before about how non-writing artists have shaped by writing but after reading this, it’s so clear.

    There’s a photographer (his name escapes me) whose art and philosophy we fell in love with. We spent more than we’d ever spent on art for his pieces, and they were hanging in our home for months before we bothered to get furniture. One piece shows a broken outdoor faucet, another a group of aluminum boats stacked together. A third shows barn doors. The artist explained that anyone can take a great shot of something beautiful and rare (the Rockies, say), but he challenged himself to find beauty in the forgotten, the overlooked, the mundane. That got right into our guts. And I now realize it’s gotten right into my novels.

    Thanks, eh?

  15. says

    NB: The photographer I mentioned in my post above is Bryan David Griffith.

    Coincidentally, a quick check of his website shows he has a new collection called The Last Bookstores: America’s Resurgent Independents.

  16. says

    Great article, Jan. I also loved the story about the bridging colour between blue and red…

    As for me, I am compltely and utterly inspired by Amanda Palmer. Her music, her attitude towards art and the world and her fans… She’s overcome adversity greater than most, and continues to face mockery and dismissal because she chooses to present herself in a particular way, and to follow a different path than most singer/songwriter/rock stars. But through all that, she remains comfortable in her own skin, and makes decisions based on what feels right to her — not what the world says she should do.

    I try to remember to keep that feeling alive in my own storytelling.

    • says

      Oh, yes, Amanda Palmer! If you asked me to describe a person who embodies whole-hearted living and art-making, she’d be my choice. Thanks for putting her name forward, Jo.

  17. says

    I would have to say actors and directors are the most non-writer types of people who have taught me about writing. I’ve recently done several blog posts about the connections between writing and acting, especially in relationship to character development. Directing is fascinating to me because of the connections to world building.

    I loved the jelly jars. I can’t believe that it’s a painting! Thanks for sharing them in another excellent post!

    • says

      Do you have a theater background, Lara, or has this become an avenue of research for you? I can certainly see how and why you’d be interested in it, and that it would teach you about writing.

  18. says

    I have quit many things many times when I haven’t gotten the support I so desperately needed from others. The inner strength that many have, but that I seem to be lacking, intrigues me to no end. I think a lot of it comes from our upbringing as I learned at an early age that quitting was the path of least resistance. Being strong and standing tall and independent is something that my writing is now teaching me. It’s still easy to fall into that old familiar rut, but reading inspiring blog posts certainly helps. Thank you. I needed a boost today.

    • says

      If you were after a place to make your stand, Susan, you’ve certainly picked a worthy one. Dr. David Schnarch, who is well-known for using the treatment of sexual dyfunctions as an access point to repairing relationships, describes marriage as a people-making machine. I think he should have mentioned writing. ;)

      Have you read Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art? If you haven’t done, you’re in for a treat. Highly recommended!

  19. Priya Gill says

    Great story Jan. inspirational and well written. My biggest
    inspiration is my dad. He life is an example of believing in
    oneself and following your dreams. As a boy growing up in a
    southern Indian village, he’d never used a fork or a spoon or even
    a closed shoe. Yet he dreamed of and applied to and became an
    officer in Indian Army (a force where officer behavior was based on
    British Aristocracy). Needless to say he was insulted,
    embarrassment and asked to go back home… Multitude of times. But
    he didn’t give up. He learnt from each event and stayed and made a
    success of it. After 20 years, he retired and started a business, a
    factory. The naysayers again exceeded the supporters. After all
    what was his training? Yet he didn’t give up. He worked super hard
    and made a success of that too. Despite all his career challenges,
    until his last day on this earth he stayed the best dad and friend
    that a person could ask for. An avid reader himself, he instilled
    in me a love for fiction and stories. A love that I’m pursuing at
    the next level. As all dads, he was filled with tons of advice for
    all occasions, but the one that I’d like to share here is a poem
    that he would read aloud. It’s called ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling. He’d
    substitute “my daughter” for “my son”. For those who haven’t read
    the poem, it’s on poetry and is a lovely set of
    verses that are just pure inspirational….

    • says

      What a story, Priya. Wow. How many people could claim that kind of legacy?

      If I’d ever read that poem, I don’t recall it, but it’s powerful in its own right, particularly the second stanza. Thanks so much for sharing.

  20. says

    This is such a lovely post and I’m going to have to learn more about this artist.

    I’ve had an advisor once tell me not to mention that I lived the works of Stephen King when applying for writing classes. I just sort of smiled and nodded, then walked out of the office and thought, Screw that. I was going to love what I loved, and write what I was going to write.

    • says

      I wonder if the spirit of contrariness is necessary for any kind of artistic success, Andrea.

      PS: Love the name of your blog post!

      • says

        That’s an interesting question. It makes me want to see how many writers, artists, and creators actually start out a piece/series/novel simply because someone said, “No, you shouldn’t do that.” It would be an interesting research project and analysis (though I don’t really have the patience to actually perform that sort of research).

        And thanks!

  21. says

    What a great post, Jan. And it jogged something deep inside, the memory of someone a long time ago, a non-writer, who did have a profound affect on my desire to write, at a time when I was feeling like I couldn’t. I have been trying to remember who (but I can’t). Frustrating. I would like to thank that person. And I’ll keep trying to remember now that the thought is planted in my mind.

  22. says

    Yay, Canada! It’s not often I get to read about Canadian
    painters, especially on writing sites :) I’ve found inspiration
    from Emily Carr (another iconic Canadian painter), who documented
    First Nations culture and wild nature on Vancouver Island. (She
    also wrote beautifully about her experiences.) In a different way,
    I’ve always been inspired by Mozart, who stuck to his instincts,
    even when they ran counter to what was deemed proper.