Working Alone | Breaking the Isolation that can Surround The Pursuit of Art

Recently I had a conversation with an artist from Montana about overcoming the isolation that can come with working as an artist in a small community. As we corresponded I realized that artists living in a small community don’t have a monopoly on isolation. Even artists living in the largest cities in the world can feel alone as they pursue their craft in the solitary confines of the studio.

As a gallery owner, I get to spend my days interacting with artists and collectors – it’s easy to forget that most art is created in solitude. Creating is so different from the pursuits of the rest of the world, that even among friends and family you can feel alone

I would like to share the email I received from Helen, in Montana describing the groups she belongs to that help her break the isoliation.

I too live in a small community (large by Montana standards, small for the rest of the U.S.), but there are a number of artists in this town and the surrounding area.   I’m benefitting greatly from two forums.   Note that I didn’t start either one; they were in existence and I was invited to join. But I could have been the initiator if the need were there and the idea occurred to me.

First, I’m a member of an artists’ group here in the community.  We have about 70 member artists from this part of the state; about 40 are relatively active.  This group has been up and running for about 30 years, and benefits from having an endowment from an estate bequest, the interest on which helps with expenses.   Members also pay an annual fee, which we keep low to encourage participation even from “starving artists.”   What do we do together?

  • We paint together every other Saturday.   To be honest, those of us who are advanced don’t get much serious painting done, but we can show our works in progress for comment.   And it’s a chance to help and encourage one another.   More experienced artists, for example, can give advice to newer artists and can collaborate with one another too.
  • We sponsor 2 – 4 workshops a year, bringing in regionally or even nationally known artists.   (There is an additional fee for these workshops).
  • We hang works together as a group at two good local venues, changing out our work on a regularly scheduled basis.
  • We hold an annual juried show in conjunction with an area art museum.  This experience also helps newer artists learn the process of entering juried competitions.
  • We have a web site, where members can show some of their works and link to their own web sites.
  • And we socialize together, with annual parties in the summer and at Christmas.

Second, I take part in monthly art critiques.   These take place on a Saturday night, after hours at a local gallery.   About 25 artists take part, with perhaps 10 – 15 showing up for any monthly session.  Everyone brings a snack to share, or a bottle of wine.  We socialize for a while, then sit down in a classroom format.  Taking turns, we go to the front and present a work in progress — usually one near completion on which we have some questions or believe we’re struggling a bit.   Everyone is free to offer their thoughts and suggestions.   The key for this critique group, I believe, is having the right culture — constructive but positive.   It’s not just a chorus of “gosh, that’s wonderful” — critical comments are made, but in a helpful way.

There are some really good artists in this group. It would be interesting to know if other artists have found yet additional ways to create a community that can be there for them when needed.

Helen R.

What Have you Done to Get Connected?

Have you experienced isolation? What have you done to become a part of the art community? How important is it for you to connect? What do you like and dislike about the solitude that comes with being an artist? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

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29 Comments

  1. I live in a small rural coastal community that has been hosting an annual plein air event for the past 15 years, but where we don’t have a local artists’ community for the remainder of the year. The fact that many of our “local” artists are snow birds who spend 1-4 winter months here makes it more difficult to organize an artists’ community. In addition to helping to start a local art center, I organize a weekly plein air group. For a small amount of effort scouting locations and sending out mass emails, I get to socialize with other artists and that is huge. We still haven’t figured out how to get the studio artists out, but at least it’s a start. I really appreciate Helen’s ideas and may incorporate some of them.

  2. Like Helen, I belong to a number of local artists group. But I also belong to many Facebook Groups for painters. Some are specialized in one type of painting technique, others are meant to offer your work for sale. I now administer a Facebook group called Create Paintings You Love where we share work in progress and completed paintings in a supportive and constructive environment. Over the years I’ve connected and become friends with painters all over the world. All of these groups actually make me feel like almost every one I know paints!

    1. Hi Sylvie, I think I found your group on FB and sent request for permission to join. I was looking for an art group where artists can discuss work in progress with actual useful comments, not the “great work!” type. I joined a few in the past, then left because main reason why most people where in those was to get “great work” comments and very few were interested in discussions. I don’t post frequently and only when opinion is asked for.

    2. Hi Sylvie ! Like Sylvie, I belong to three different Facebook groups along with a couple of art societies. Facebook is so helpful and delightful as you can ‘chat’ back and forth with so many, many artist, some new to painting, others literally masters ! Groups, small or large, offer a wonderful ‘meeting’ place for artists to see and learn from each other and to eliminate most feelings of being isolated. When I am happily painting, however, I absolutely love and require my ‘isolation’ !

  3. Having read Helen R.’s account of such an active and supportive artist community in a small community, I am toying with moving to Montana! I do belong to several artist’s groups, and I suppose I do not take part enough in what they offer.

    1. If you feel lonely or isolated, then ‘do’ take part in the artists’ groups that you belong to ! You will learn new techniques, have friends interested in what you are interested in and just generally evolve as a happy and growing artist!

  4. I belong to an art community where I can socialize and work in an open studio environment. I find this very refreshing and like the atmosphere that other artists who come together provide. The open studio is part of a school, Art Academy of Long Island, in Merrick, New York. Before this arrangement existed, I worked alone at home. It was very isolating. I find that I am more productive if I have the structure of an open studio.

    1. Hi Nancy- I took some classes at the Art Academy of Long Island a few years ago before moving to Arizona. I agree the Art Academy was a wonderful place and I’m so glad to hear it’s thriving!
      Being connected to other artists is wonderful…have fun!

  5. We recently visited the Parthenon in Nashville and viewed their collection of impressionistic landscapes from the 1800s. In the bios of each artist, many mentioned that they lived in an “artist colony” of painters in the same style. It made me think how different an artist’s life is now. You can be very connected through the internet, but isolated too. Good topic!

  6. The small community that I live in has several art clubs and there are no end to the shows they have. I have belonged to two of them, but found that after working at painting all day, I didn’t really feel like packing everything up to then paint in the evening. Working on shows and executive positions with club involvement takes time away from producing work for gallery representation; so I left the clubs. My work in my studio is solitary, but since I am an introvert, solitude isn’t a hardship. I still meet with artists for dinners and chats and have other social activities outside of the art world. I like peace and quiet, other than my preferred music, so I can be a critical thinker while being creative. Perhaps the need for painting in community depends upon the personality of each individual. When I have a show, or demonstrate painting in public at a gallery, I love to meet people and interact with them, teaching those interested about the process of art making; however when I’ve got my creative hat on, I prefer solitude.

    1. I am so with you. I belong to several groups and I find socializing difficult. My mind set is: “It’s a waste of time”. I do make the effort though as I think this is a hangover from my childhood. What I have done lately, however, is form a mastermind of artists. This has been most beneficial as far as exposure goes. We have been accepted in a growing number of venues both in British Columbia and Alberta. Although we decided on certain parameters for our shows they do not limit my production as I have just included them as part of what I do. We keep the momentum going by meeting on Skype once per week and three times a year face to face. Half the group lives about three and half hours from the rest. The difference I think is that although we get along well, it is not a social group. We are in it for the benefit of all while continuing our personal practices.

  7. Living in Phoenix, Arizona, a large metropolitan city, I do have several options for connecting with other artists. I currently belong to AAG, Arizona Artist Guild, which is a nonprofit organization led by volunteers dedicated to providing and promoting opportunities in the visual arts including exhibitions, education, and outreach programs. The members are mostly elderly, but for a small annual fee of $45.00 I get to paint together with other artists, several of them retired or active art teachers, who encourage each other and provide a way to share my work and get advice. I am still looking to get further involved with perhaps taking more art classes and joining a group closer to my age, but for now this is a great way to feel included in the artist community.

  8. It is very difficult to work in isolation.

    My medium is fiber/fabric/stitching/thread. While there are local groups which use these materials, they are not able to critique my work. The responses I get range from ‘how pretty!’ to glazed eyes with a polite ‘how nice’. There are artists groups but those groups tend to focus on the medium instead of the composition. Or I hear a story about either how their grandmother quilted or ravings about Gees Bend.

    I tried to find other organizations but was similarly disappointed.

    So I started a small group under the auspices of a national organization. We meet most months and I prepare a lesson. Each lesson consists of an art term, review of an artist”s life and work, an art lesson on either color or composition, assignment of a new challenge and then critique of the previous’ months’ assignment and on-going works in progress. We have also had a critique session of a show in a museum. It is a lot of work for me; and I would dearly love to be a student instead of the teacher; but that doesn’t seem to be a viable option at this point.

  9. I belong to a co-op gallery. There is another artist group in town that paint together, but it doesn’t really appeal to me. What I do enjoy is talking with the other person I am working with in the gallery about what is going on in their life. I also like speakers with customers and learning about their interests. I belong to the community Theatre group here as well as a writers group.

  10. I’m a photographer who mostly shoots in the woods. I belong to a photo club that meets twice a month and I “hang out” on a couple of forums on the web. I also share some of my work on Flickr. All of that is more than enough interaction for me. I’m a major introvert, so shooting by myself and printing in my darkroom by myself are my happy times. Extroverts don’t seem able to grasp the concept that I’m not shy and it doesn’t make me happy to be around people. I do out and shoot with other members of the photo club, but we all tend to spread out and shoot on our own, just in the same general area. We don’t interact much other than letting each other know of cool things we saw or where to watch out for poison ivy. That works for us.

  11. I belong to a group that meets once a month in my studio to simply support and encourage one another. We take turns talking about our creative journey and presenting the “creative spark” for the month, We also bring works for critiquing. Since we started about three years ago, we have launched two successful group shows at our city’s community arts center, and are preparing a proposal for another in 2020. I have joined a critique class led by an experienced, established artist, which is beneficial as well. An artist friend has recently begun hosting a “painting together” group at her studio, but I prefer to do the actual work without the distraction of others, and without having to lug my materials to another location.

  12. I’m taking art classes at my local community college. Although my primary purpose is to learn in order to improve the quality of my art, and although I enjoy working alone, I am benefiting from the advantages of group endeavors, such as positive & constructive feedback from others, answers to my questions, learning new creative approaches by viewing other’s art, and being on a painting schedule that helps ensure I meet my “art time” commitment.

  13. I am also in a smallish town in Montana. There are an incredible amount of artists here and art walks are a great way to socialize as well as many groups to join. I don’t partake in enough events like this and I do find myself isolated especially after a long winter. I am moving to Phoenix soon and really want to meet as many other artists as I can, are there any artist groups or events that I should know about?

  14. This is spot on. There are many groups formed for various reasons in any field — book clubs and workshops, travel, photography and so on. We do the same thing in school and life at all levels to get together around some shared thing. Online there are so many groups and forums to join. This topic is interesting because in the “traditional” workplace, whatever that is today, employers often ask whether you can work independently, being able to bring something to the table, or in teams. “Work” styles and locations have changed — on site, remote, etc. But it’s nice to know that there’s always something whether one wants to get out and/or work independently. I think both are necessary to some extent.

  15. I think it is important to have an art group so people can share ideas. I am also involved in three art organizations where we have juried shows. But, I also believe you need other interests and ways to find friends other than just in the art field. I am involved in our church and enjoy sports. Sometimes it is nice just to get away from art all together so that when you are painting , you can look at your work with fresh eyes!

  16. I belong to the two artist associations in my small rural area. A few other artists and I meet on Mondays once in a while for plein air painting. And my studio is in the old schoolhouse in my town, with other artists among the many people who rent former classrooms. I had always dreamed of having a home studio, but now I wouldn’t trade being around other people creating. I’m still mostly alone, which I like, but I have the option of a little company periodically. Best of both worlds!

  17. I’ve got a group of artist friends I met in an MFA program. When we graduated, I suggested meeting once a month for art critiques and dinner. That was 4 years ago. We rotate hosting at our homes or studios. We spend the first hour or so critiquing each others work, then have a pot luck dinner and discuss a variety of art related topics. We occasionally attend a museum exhibition, gallery opening, or art fair together. I work alone in my studio, which I prefer, but it’s been so nice being a part of this supportive group of like-minded artists/friends.

  18. I paint alone and relish the solitude. I sketch with an artist/friend once a week but that’s about it. There are two groups available here and a couple more which are 20 – 30 miles away. The city art association is large and parking is awful. It’s hard to socialize but I do enter pieces in the shows. The other group has a lot of weekly classes but under a teacher who is quite difficult to be around. What I learned there, I learned from other students. I attend workshops several times a year and keep in touch with many fellow students through Facebook. Also Painters Helping Painters and Painting Best Practices are two groups I trust for advice and good discussions. Everything is so handy in my studio that I hate to pack it all up to go paint somewhere I can’t concentrate. Right now, I’m quite happy where I am. But then I’m 70 and I socialize in other ways.

  19. It sounds like the person who wrote the email above is describing a cooperative gallery even if she does not call it that. I live in a small upstate NY town in the Finger Lakes and we have an abundance of very talented artists in our area. We have one small co-op gallery in town, but no commercial galleries. I have been a member for almost 20 years and there are up to 30 members representing a number of disciplines, painting, drawing, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and recently a new member doing fiber art. We have a major display of works twice a year, and show one work every month along along with member gatherings to discuss these works. Additionally we have two yearly open shows for other artists in our area, one for photography, another for all other art media.

    At one time we had two commercial galleries in town but they only were open for a year or so, and they never survived. There was simply not enough sales. The only other option for artists in our area is to seek out commercial galleries in nearby towns larger than ours. However that becomes difficult for local artists to be able to have regular contact with them. One could say, “out of sight, out of mind”. That perhaps is the most difficult part of being represented by distant galleries unless artists are willing to accept this remoteness and be willing to travel to wherever needed if they are represented in distant galleries.

    Fortunately there is a local arts council that sponsors an Art Trail for two weekends each October. There are almost 50 artists who open their studios that brings in several hundreds visitors and promotes many sales. However the rest of the year is rather quiet. Some artists also go on weekends to regional craft and art fairs to sell their work and some do quite well.

    I guess you might wonder why artists are willing to live in remote locations if selling their art there is so difficult. I guess the answer is that the locations we live in present a quality of life that is most appealing, that is not necessarily found in larger city locations. I know that is true for me.

  20. Early in my career as an artist-teacher, I felt I had to produce my artwork outside regular hours because my students were a top priority. This worked for the few juried shows I entered each year.
    The habit has been a tough one to break but now that I have a fairly open “retiree” schedule I have some luxury.
    I have changed how I introduce myself, which is now ” artist”, not “retired arts instructor”, That little change, and saying it to myself in the mirror, has resulted in contact and acceptance with other artists, from local to social media.
    I still work alone but I have people who I connect with and answer to. That last bit is interesting. I had an artist as a student teacher. We have stayed in touch. He calls me at random times and asks, “What are you working on right now.” By right now, he means at this moment. He’s pleased that IU’m usually very quick to answer.
    In terms of groups and organizations- I would rather present a program to a group than be on for critiques, etc. I can do them, it’s just that for me this is an intense process between 2 people and an art work.
    I got over being shy in college so interacting with people is not a problem for me. Scheduling the when and where is.
    I was raised in a small rural village in Central New York. I live in a small rural area north of where I was raised, also in Central New York. I have a UPS, USPS, and FedEx address. I work at having a local presence but my career path has been evolutionary which is probably not to everyone’s liking.

  21. I am actually having trouble getting space to myself so I can work. My social circle is small and specific; my “therapy sessions” include a book club that has diverse interests and occasionally organises field trips. I have a weekly writing group, and I find that socialising away from art is helpful for balance. I am careful about which artists I interact with; it seems I prefer to choose people whose work is not at all similar to mine. I’m always overly self-conscious about influences; maybe that’s why. I find I don’t really like to talk about art, but talking about process as a generality is sometimes a relief.

  22. I enjoy the focus, the thrill of discovery and the sense of accomplishment that comes from daily solitary work in the studio or in the field…but too much of it can put me in a funk. I view it as an occupational hazard. I also enjoy social activities and find that they return me to the studio refreshed and energized, so they more than re-pay the time they take. I like to have some social life which is art-based and some which is not. I lived in the mountains for many years and have lived in the city the past 4. It is possible to be isolated in either and possible to solve the isolation in either, but I have found it easier to build a good balance in the city. I do some of the following things every week:
    draw with a life-drawing group.
    paint with a life-painting group.
    teach at my local art club.
    paint with a plein-air group.
    walk with a neighborhood group early in the morning.
    work with a community-garden group Saturday mornings (summer).

    I also try to stay focused and not get stuck on negative thoughts while alone in the studio.

    As far as paintings go, most of my best ones come out of those solitary hours in the studio.

    For me the internet doesn’t really solve the isolation issue…phone calls are better and seeing people in person is by far the best. (though I obviously do use the internet and I really enjoy this blog)

  23. My artist mom (oil and pastel) was also a very social person. She would sign up for classes she didn’t need, just to be able to paint with other people in the same room. I’m the opposite, I can’t get anything done that way. Social groups of artists can be a good fit, but avoid groups in college towns–academic artists can be very competitive and aggressive, not a pleasant working relationship. Plein air painting groups seem to be the most cheerful and welcoming. To each their own, though.

  24. The problem I have with joining a lot of groups is that I have that much less time in the studio. As an older single person I have my have my hands full trying to keep up with the day-to-day necessities of staying solvent and keeping my home in good repair. I live 25-50 miles from population areas that might support a group such as the one described above and the time involved in travel is that much more time not painting. I do belong to an artist’s group that’s about 30 miles away but they don’t really offer the kind of gatherings as described in other comments. I’m going to look into the facebook groups and try that out, any specific suggestions would be welcome.

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